In Western literature on laughter, says Anca Parvulescu, PhD, a lot of attention is paid to why people laugh. But what she finds more interesting is the question of how people laugh.
“We understand the structure that precedes laughter, like the mechanism of jokes,” says Parvulescu, assistant professor of English in Arts & Sciences. “But many jokes don’t lead to laughter, and we often laugh without a joke.”
Parvulescu’s book Laughter: Notes on a Passion (MIT Press, 2010) examines what people do when they laugh. What does laughter sound like? What are the different kinds of laughs that people laugh? What social, cultural and political work does laughter do?
“The word ‘laughter’ covers a range of laughing expressions — laughing with joy, cruelty, sadness, to punctuate conversation,” Parvulescu says.
“We say ‘I’m beside myself with laughter.’ We’re not quite there when we laugh,” Parvulescu says. “In laughter, we are open to something else. If we are able to tap into the unknown in laughter, we can imagine ourselves as different subjects.”
Historically, writers and philosophers typically described laughter as loud, uncontrollable and explosive — as if the body was going through a series of convulsions, Parvulescu says.
“If you read early modern texts, laughter is described as the throwing of limbs, shaking of body, with the sounds produced by laughter like animal sounds,” she says.
This is where the phrases like “explosion of laughter” and “die laughing” come from, she says.
Because of its uncontrollable nature, laughter was considered a type of bodily noise — akin to coughing or burping. In Western society, noise was taboo — better suited for “savages” than savants.
This changed around the turn into the 20th century, Parvulescu says, for two reasons.
One, avant-garde movements re-evaluated the taboo on noise, incorporating noise — including laughter — into music, for example. From here, laughter quickly permeated popular culture.
Two, Parvulescu says that we laugh more in the 20th century because we have “civilized our laughs.”
“We mostly laugh moderate, social, small laughs,” she says. “For the most part, we don’t laugh violent, rough, loud, body-shaking laughs” described in the early modern period.
However, through the “passional” laughs described in Parvulescu’s book, contemporary people often return to those earlier laughs, losing themselves and tapping into the unknown within.
Parvulescu says the book on such a laughing matter was a pleasure to write.
“I remember going through my daily routine looking forward to the few hours a day when I could sit down and write,” Parvulescu says. “Those were the best hours of my day.”
Parvulescu will be one of two faculty presenters for “Celebrating Our Books, Recognizing Our Authors,” the university’s ninth annual faculty book colloquium, sponsored by the Center for the Humanities in Arts & Sciences and the Washington University Libraries.
The event will begin at 4:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 29, in the Ann W. Olin Women’s Building Formal Lounge. For more information, visit news.wustl.edu/news/Pages/21539.aspx.