I. A LIFE In the final months of his life, Gilles Deleuze wrote “Immanence: A Life” (1995), a short essay that would be his last. In it, he articulates his philosophical ethics by way of a literary example, for, he tells us, “no one has described what a life is better than Charles Dickens” (Deleuze 2001, 28). Deleuze recounts a passage from Our Mutual Friend (1865), in which a “rogue, held in contempt by everyone, is found as he lies dying” (Deleuze 2001, 28). Hovering on the brink of death, the man’s roguish particularities melt away and he becomes, just for a moment, something else: no longer the life but a life. For Freud, such ontological trembling between subject and object would mean we had entered the terrifying terrain of the uncanny. However, in Dickens’ version, the crowds do not shrink back in estranged fear from this vibrant nexus of life-death. Instead, they rush forward, propelled by a sudden surge of collective empathy. Deleuze describes the scene, "Between his life and his death, there is a moment that is only that of a life playing with death. The life of an individual gives way to an impersonal and yet singular life […] with whom everyone empathizes and who attains a sort of beatitude" (Deleuze 2001, 29).
Deleuze, via Dickens, demarcates the difference between “the life of an individual,” which is marked by one’s actualized actions and particular personality traits, and “a life,” which is the non-individuated texture of existence that becomes detectable only in the brief interludes when the garrulous “I” is thrown into abeyance. The passage is a parable: confronted with the raw presence of a life the crowd swells forward, possessed by empathy, desirous of communication, bound by love.
II. A LAUGH
The Dickens-Deleuze anecdote—its new conception of life and attendant impersonal ethics—beats at the center of this work. For one does not need to occupy the “strange interval before death” in order to disclose the uncertain dimensions of a life; other routes are possible (Rajchman 2001, 8). Deleuze confirms that “we shouldn’t enclose life in the single moment when individual life confronts universal death. A life is everywhere” (Deleuze 2001, 29). The indeterminate dimensions of a life are hard to see because we have learned to train our gaze instead on the individual and its associated structures of consciousness, personality, and subjectivity. This is why, although it is “everywhere,” Deleuze chooses to exemplify a life in its most dramatic, vivid form—the moment unto death.
This project is rooted in my conviction that the convulsive event of laughter is one such non-fatal index of a life. Throughout the course of four chapters, I argue that laughter does not belong to the individual, but is instead an impersonal force that passes through and momentarily dislocates a person from her subjectivity. In this moment of dislocation, laughter forges an aperture in which an alternative mode of existence, “impersonal yet singular,” may come rushing in. The radical political and philosophical possibilities of laughter have been woefully under-examined, I suggest, because the field of humor studies, which counts Aristotle, Kant, and Freud among its contributors, has routinely avoided its irrational properties and instead offered scientific reasons—physiological, evolutionary, and psychological—as to why we laugh. In Chapter 1, I show how this scholarly preference for humor (as opposed to laughter) evidences a commitment to the emotionally legible, self-contained individual who can answer the question, calmly posed: now tell me, why did you laugh?
To best see and attend to laughter’s convulsive properties, I focus on literary and cinematic examples of laughter that are wholly without humor. Such laughter may adopt any number of forms but is always recognizable on the page or screen by its oddly jarring character: it may arrive as a sinewy spasm of spit and sound that contorts the body into grotesque shapes, a blustering gale that crashes through and destroys the inner coherence of the individual, or a sonic contagion that pours out of one mouth to infect another.
III. IN DEFENSE OF HORROR
While the laughs considered here are vehemently singular, they do share an identifiable feature: all stand in close proximity to horror. The dankly corporeal flow of the specifically female “dangerous laughter” that is under investigation in Chapter 1 recalls the obliquely gendered, abject bodies of body horror. The “ecstatic laughter” of Chapter 2 defenestrates the subject into a vast, cosmic abyss that echoes the radical alterities found in supernatural horror. Chapter 3 examines an infectious “grotesque laughter” which tosses the individual back and forth between the ontological categories of human, animal, and machine with an uncanny fervor, and the shattering shriek of “atomic laughter” described in Chapter 4 indexes the inexpressible horror of imagining total planetary death; a world without us.
Bolstered by the critical work of Julia Kristeva and Eugene Thacker, I argue throughout that the powerful sensations associated with horror—disgust, unease, dread, or terror—are the affective effects of having the Cartesian rug yanked from beneath our feet. In this vertiginous moment of sudden groundlessness we are given a choice: we can scrabble for the old threads that previously bound us, or we can tarry for a while amidst the disquietude of uncertainty, on the lookout for the arrival of something other, something new.
Deleuze’s parable, of course, rewards the loiterer. The sudden revocation of the rogue’s personal subjectivity is uncanny, yes. But it is also the condition upon which the affirmative dimensions of a life may come into visibility. Confronted with an unintelligible burst of laughter, we too must jostle past our own upsurges of horror in order to glimpse the tentative forms of community and personhood that become possible in its wake.
IV. IN DEFENSE OF LITERATURE
My understanding of laughter as an impersonal experience charged with political and philosophical possibilities marks my project’s affinity with recent work in affect theory which, following Deleuze, conceives of affects as subjectless expressions of “pure potentiality” (Deleuze 2003b, 109).
As I detach the visceral spasm of laughter from the comprehensible structures of humor, so affect theory begins with the jimmying open of a critical gap between personal emotion (the cognitively recognizable, “named” feeling that proves the internal emotional intelligibility of the individual) and impersonal affect (the corporeally messy, “nameless” feeling that viscerally overwhelms and discombobulates the same). Affect theory is routinely accused of an ironically sentimental imprecision that answers concrete political questions by gesturing vaguely off-stage toward some virtual future. “I guess “affect” is the word I use for “hope,”” Brian Massumi tells one interviewer (Massumi 2002b). To construe of laughter as a condition of possibility, a “margin of maneuverability,” is to invite similar accusations of crude optimism: that is all very well, but we are forced to ask, what possibilities, what maneuvers? (Massumi 2002).
My project bypasses such abstractions by turning to imaginative texts—literature, philosophy, and film—as experimental sites where the potentialities of laughter are fleshed out in thickly descriptive forms. This methodology was largely inspired by Eugenie Brinkema’s recent book, The Form of the Affects (2014), which insists on close-reading as a means of attending to the formal dimensions of affect. “I care about the little things,” Brinkema says, “like the shape of the curve of something that may or may not be a tear” (Dizikes 2014). As Deleuze discovered in Dickens one literary illustration of a life’s communal possibilities, so I set out to examine the specific ways in which the eruptive burst of laughter enters, unsettles, and reconfigures the aesthetic and narrative form of a text.
V. READING INTERRUPTION
Laughter interrupts. Walter Benjamin, the philosopher of fragments, recognized the value of laughter as an engine of interruptive illumination. In a scribbled note that later found its home as a fragment of the gargantuan assemblage Das Passagenwerk, he wrote, “Laughter is shattered articulation” (Benjamin 2002, 325). This aphorism should be coupled with another. In a 1934 speech, Benjamin interrupted himself to offer an aside, “by the way,” he tells his audience, “there is no better starting point for thought than laughter” (Benjamin 2003, 101). Taken together, these fragments forge a dialectical image of laughter as both a destructive, shattering agent and a fecund point of departure. Like Deleuze’s a life, Benjaminian laughter is an uncanny threshold between death (of articulation) and birth (of thought).
Strewn across his oeuvre, Benjamin’s epigrammatic notes mimic laughter’s interruptive, fragmentary properties. To become visible, the reader must become both archaeologist and architect, first extracting and then assembling Benjamin’s fragments into a single “lightening flash” of laughter. This project as a whole has required a similar rethinking of critical method. To examine laughter without disfiguring it one has to collect, combine, and inhabit texts in new ways; to craft what Judith Jack Halberstam has in a different context called “scavenger methodologies” (Halberstam 2012, 266). The scavenger raids any and every aesthetic form, critical method, and academic discipline to create a singular, inclusive archive that extends across great distances. For Halberstam, such readerly dexterity rescues queer strategies of being and belonging from being liquidated under the lumbering weight of traditional conceptual frames. Spanning continents and disciplines, this project performs a similar salvage mission. In four chapters, I exhume and examine literary and cinematic examples of impersonal, anti-cognitive laughter which have previously been marked as “abnormal” or “pathological” by the twin disciplinary structures of humor studies and medical dictionaries.
In assembling these irrational bursts, disjunctive shrieks, and spasmodic barks of twentieth-century laughter into a single archive, I have sought to temper the grasping ferocity of Halberstam’s scavenger figure with Édouard Glissant’s poetics of errant thought. In what is still one of my favorite sentences in criticism, Glissant describes the errant as he who “strives to know the totality of the world yet already knows he will never accomplish this—and knows that is precisely where the threatened beauty of the world resides” (Glissant 2010, 20). At the heart of Glissant’s work is an ethics of unintelligibility that seeks to develop methods of critical engagement that do not enclose or abbreviate difference. Laughter without Humor shares these ambitions. Rather than delineating a global theory of laughter, each chapter stages a discrete encounter with a singular strain of humorless laughter and examines its specificities as it unfolds across the open spaces of literature, philosophy, and film.
This errant approach to laughter produces its own trajectories, however, the shape of my archive was not inevitable. This document is not a closed one; a host of other examples not explicitly materialized here informed my thinking about the problem and possibilities of laughter. There is the Tanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962, which disabled the social infrastructure of an African tribe for six months, the unprecedented online popularity of an interminably looped video of Natalie Portman laughing at the 2011 Golden Globe Awards, and the anonymous laughing voices caught forever on the now-decaying spools of CBS’s infamous “laff track.” There laughs and many others remain untapped; they hang in the wings of this project as pure potentialities, tangible reminders that laughter always stands in excess of the limits of meaning, narrative, and knowledge that organize our scholarly work.
In what follows, I have selected writers whose work exhibits a prolonged philosophic or poetic engagement with laughter. This prerequisite has brought to the fore two discrete intellectual genealogies: French poststructuralist theory and American black humor. Viewed along the vector of laughter, these two lineages plait together, as one reveals itself to be an expression of the other.
Chapter 1 provides a model for encountering laughter without humor in philosophy and literature. I chronicle the scattered emergence of a “laughter of unreason” in the philosophical works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Georges Bataille, and Michel Foucault. I show how this model of laughter was taken up for feminist purposes by Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, and Luce Irigaray, before turning to three literary portraitures of a specifically female laughter to examine how the philosophical conceptualization of “laughter without reason” is imaginatively reworked into the literary conceit of “dangerous laughter.” Close-readings of pieces by T.S. Eliot (“Hysteria”), Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale), and Steven Millhauser (“Dangerous Laughter”) organizes the chapter’s latter segment.
Chapter 2 interrupts the expansive genealogical sweep of the previous chapter to concentrate its gaze on the “ecstatic laughter” of Georges Bataille. I examine a specific moment in intellectual history—the public vitriol between André Breton and Bataille that marked the devastating disunion of the Surrealist movement in Paris, 1929—as a means of dramatizing the complicated philosophical divergence of laughter from humor. In the wake of the split, Breton repurposed Hegelian idealism and Freudianism to coin the term “humour noir,” which he posited as the unsmiling triumph of the ego against the harsh buffetings of external reality. Meanwhile, Bataille built his materialist philosophy on the messy limit-experience of laughter. Bataillean laughter is an affective torrent that overwhelms the individual and in so doing affords her temporary access to a plane of ecstatic deindividuation. Bringing Bataille into contact with the nitrous oxide philosophy of William James and the psychedelic art of Belgian poet and Surrealist Henri Michaux, I trace the inchoate dimensions of ecstatic laughter to ask whether it can articulate its own mode of politics without relying on the tools of humour noir (ego, intellect, language) for representation.
The latter half of the dissertation focuses on the jarring laughs that populate American black humor. Chapter 3 provides a close-reading of Nathanael West’s final novel, The Day of the Locust (1939), which in its tone and aesthetic serves as a useful hinge between Surrealist humour noir and American black humor. Bringing the theoretical work of Theodor Adorno, Henri Bergson, and Mikhail Bakhtin in conversation with recent criticism by Tyrus Miller and Justus Nieland, I identify two strains of laughter in West’s novel. The first is “self-reflexive” laughter, a rigid “ha-ha” that fixes the laughing person as a mono-affective general type and in so doing camouflages him among the crowds of caricatures that inhabit West’s Hollywood. The second is what I term “grotesque” laughter—an affective overspill that dismantles subjectivity into a series of ontologically unstable performances. I argue that while this precarity has positive dimensions, Westian laughter ultimately fails to generate new models of subjectivity or sociality, registering instead as a terrifying dispossession of sense and self.
Chapter 4, “Shattered Thought, Shattered Being,” takes up the previous two chapters’ closing questions about whether the non-signifying burst of laughter can be translated into a workable political and philosophical practice. I coin the term “atomic laughter” to refer to a shattering strain of laughter that emerged in American black humor texts in the wake of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Taking three darkly comic works in which the nuclear bomb plays an explicit role—Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963) and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964)—I argue that the “explosion” of atomic laughter obliterates humanist discourse to create a newly flattened philosophical terrain no longer riveted by the strictures of Enlightenment thought. The chapter concludes with a meditation on laughter as an affective embodiment of the planetary thought of Kostas Axelos and the nomadic poetics of Édouard Glissant.