- The Pleasure of Fools: Essays in the Ethics of Laughter
If all laughter is at someone's expense, how do we understand the ethics of laughter? This is Jure Gantar's project and he explores 'the possibility of a perfectly ethical laughter ... to see whether one can indeed find a theoretical instance when laughter as an audience reaction alienates no one.' This is, not surprisingly, a fraught task, but various meditations on the condition of laughter and related domains such as nonsense, ridicule, and insult allow for an extended investigation of theorists of comedy across history, complemented by a variety of literary and dramatic texts that have tested theory by way of creative practice.
Gantar suggests that laughter might be 'described as an external display of our innate prejudices or, even more damningly, as a public [End Page 151] projection of our desire to distance ourselves from the Other and suppress the difference,' although he mostly prefers to consider more historical examples than to take on contemporary debates about the politics of difference. The seven essays that explore the ethics of laughter travel from the Greeks to post-structuralism as well as deploy the author's disciplinary training – he is a professor of theatre at Dalhousie University – through the utilization of dramatic texts as his key case studies. Of course, texts intended for a public audience work especially well for Gantar, since, as he puts it, plays are 'the only form of text where the presence of laughter can be determined empirically.' Whether that is in fact the case, certainly the explicit conditions of reception in any public performance remind us 'that the ethics of laughter depends not on the extent of its satirical content but on whether the target of laughter is a hegemonic majority or a disenfranchised minority.' The question of ethical laughter is, necessarily, one that must take account of both production and reception, intention and effect.
The essays together address alternatives to laughter (looking at genre and other constraints), typologies of laughter, nonsense, ridicule, laughter in utopia (testing Bakhtin's idea of subversive laughter), self--deprecating laughter, and the comedian (stand-up as the performance of abjection). In each case, Gantar ranges across relevant critical thinking and provides effective readings of literary and dramatic texts. As his various discussions amply demonstrate, critics 'question the social and aesthetic purpose of laughter from a variety of theoretical perspectives and regularly advise against its gratuitous use.' And, in the end, there's never much chance for ethical criticism since, according to Gantar, criticism 'ends up either advocating the censoring of laughter in the interest of morality, or exhausting itself in a hopeless search for what does not exist: innocent laughter.' Put another way, 'ethical criticism can never treat a joke as a joke but always as an insult.'
Gantar's argument is certainly an interesting one and it does provide a clear and distinct perspective on how comedy as a genre has been understood and, so often, dismissed. Perhaps the greatest strength of these essays comes from the wealth of example Gantar uses to stage a particular case and reflect upon it, and this approach, in the sum of its parts, makes for a provocative challenge to received ideas about the role and effects of laughter.