Saturday, August 16, 2014

Laughing at Critical Thought

The past week I was a participant in the workshop 'Laughing at Ibsen', which was hosted by the Venice Biennale of Architecture (which has a small side program in theatre) and led by Mark Ravenhill. The workshop participants were half Italian, half foreign, and we examined methods of injecting laughter into dramatic situations in which does not obviously belong, in this case, Ibsen's Ghosts.

An interesting thing happened at the end of the four days - I was invited to share reflections. My response was filled with the gusto of one totally swept away by the moment - I babbled insipidly about the Italian comedians in the room, something about how they were gloriously lent to comedy. True - but not useful. So the below is an attempt to reclaim some lost critical territory, as there are important things to be said about laughing today.

Upon re-reading Henri Bergsson's essay On Laughter, what I noticed the most was how it seemed at once relevant and irrelevant. Bergsson's focus is not on the generic 'comedy' but on the human reflex 'laughter', and exactly what that is in a very scientific way. This approach essentialises 'the comic' into its audience response, and in doing so achieves a universality born of neutrality. Examining the impulse - laughter - and not the form of comedy effectively splits the content's meaning and its function. In short, it removes comedy from ideology.
This may not be such a problem, were comedy not exploited so masterfully today for all sort of ideological ends. Rarely is it autonomous, it is almost always followed closely by political intent. If you need an example, look no further than Louis C.K, who has built a living from excusing the audience from an ethics-less ultraviolence - the tagline always 'Yes, I'm an asshole. So what?'

Separating laughter from its meaning or argument may be dangerous now. We live in times where few laughs are not compromised. This is particularly the case in the anglophone world, where laughter is often the expense of an unseen 'other'.

Applying critical thought to laughter may seem counterproductive and probably makes me look like a killjoy. Yet it should be clear that this is the one place where it is totally neccessary. Bergsson limits laughter to its reflex response to anxiety that comes with a recognition of the body - where it realises its automatic potential, and the individual experiences a loss of control. That has the potential to be appropriated and manipulated, precisely because, like nostalgia, it's an area of perceived innocence.

If you're asking the silent question 'why is this important?' then all I can do is hopelessly point at the difficulties in generating critical thought of any quality today. The assault of a particular style of spectacularism, perpetuated by corporations and media hand-in-hand with a new generation of advocates. It's not cool to criticise, it's cool to participate unquestioningly.

All of this is naturally not to discount the work that was done during the week - on finding the 'lazzo' in Ibsen's Ghosts, the technique that creates laughter becomes visible and employable as a tool. The next question, 'but how?' is the key question in the context of comedy today.

POSTSCRIPT: I have been reminded that Bergsson makes several arguments that might be defined as pre-Brechtian, aimed at distancing the audience to examine laughter as a social function. To me, this doesn't do anything to combat the main means for which laughter is appropriated - it's normalising or otherising function, it's ability to draw a line in the sand between what is 'normal' and what is 'other'. This is, for me, how comedy is used to reinforce the status quo today.

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