Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Sanders, Barry. Sudden Glory: Laughter as Subversive History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.

Going back to ancient Hebrew, Egyptian and Greek writing, artwork and religion, this readable and accessible book traces the history of laughter in Western culture. For instance, Sanders open the book by referencing a 3rd century Egyptian alchemical papyrus in which the Creator laughs of chaos, with bursts of laughter bringing forth all aspects of creation (1). Sanders notes that the history of laughter (in the west) and the structure of modern humour is built on a tradition that comes to us via the Greek and Latin foundation of much of western knowledge. As such, he notes that a bias towards both a white, male humorist and laugher is built into the tradition to some degree (26). At the same time, Sanders describes the modern joke as stemming from the collision of this intellectual, rhetorical world with the vernacular, oral world (26). Sanders thus situates the study of laughter (and I would argue humour as well) within cultural studies, conceived as a combination of critical and aesthetic theory with everyday experience and subjectivity.

One of the key strands in this book follows laughter's association with power. He writes, "From the point of view of the marginalized and the disenfranchised, if they cannot participate in the writing of history, they can at least try to erase it. To pull this off, however, one must realize that while a laugh can turn the subtleties of power inside out, making them suddenly visible, it can also turn power into pure brutality, for power, finally, has nothing to say to laughter—it remains dumb in the silent sense, dumb-founded in the weakest way. When it responds, it can only resort to mere physicality –torture, imprisonment, or even death" (25). This reading of power in relation to laughter, or their interplay, is interesting particularly alongside a Foucauldian notion of power as negotiated. I would argue, though, that the power he is describing is equally tied to the provocation of such laughter, or humour. In other words, something must provoke the laughing-at-power that he describes. At the same time, the violent response of the structure of power to laughter suggests that joking and humour are both forces around which both resistance and repression congeal. The orientation towards change is captured in his statement, "everyone laughs in the future tense" (32).

Sanders notes that the decoupling of the word and its usage in the modern period occurs alongside "an artistic revolution of laughter, in surrealism and dada" (31). He speculates that "joking may characterize best the breaking that postmodernists seem to relish so much" (31). These statements reinforce my idea the contemporary sense of humour can be traced to the artistic and literary movements of modernism.

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