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Laughter as/at the Rhetoric of Democracy
Unformatted Document Text:  5 inclination to humiliate but an inability to empower” 25 , he nonetheless that irony – at least in the form of ironist philosophy – has, and cannot, do much for equality or freedom. 26 Rather, this type of irony is more suited to the private goal and pursuit of perfection; in the social sphere, it is not only “ill-suited to public purposes” but further, “of no use to liberals qua liberals.” 27 My concern then, in this introduction, is two-fold: first, to articulate an alternative vision of laughter, one that moves beyond the narrow conception of laughter as an expression of scorn and contempt and towards an appreciation of laughter’s democratic potential; second, to argue that our concerns over the way citizens talk to one another should be expanded to include laughter as a unique, and potentially democratic, form of discourse. To be clear, my goal is neither to criticize Skinner, Rawls, Habermas, and Rorty, nor to argue that their respective focuses are misplaced. Rather, I simply want to suggest, on the one hand, that while Skinner’s historical narrative argues for the place of laughter in philosophical analysis, it does not exhaust the richness of this tradition. Moreover, if we are interested in the political implications of laughter, yet concerned over laughter’s anti-democratic elements, it behooves us to look beyond the tradition Skinner delineates. On the other hand, Rawls’ justificatory liberalism and Habermas’ discourse ethics both treat crucial aspects of democratic theory and practice; yet, they likewise do not exhaust all the various ways in which democratic citizens talk to one another. An understanding of what a given community communally laughs about and at is a particularly useful category of social analysis in identifying the fundamental structure of that society’s ideology – for identifying, in other words, the basic categories that structured the political grammar operating within the public sphere. Laughter is also particularly useful in revealing the fissures and interstices within that same ideology – for revealing the moments in which ideological constructions break down when confronted with certain brute facts about the world. For both these reasons, I argue that close attention to laughter and comedy can help us to better understand how democracy functions as a social practice. The idea that laughter is an expression of contempt and scorn can be countered in two ways: first, by looking to alternative instantiations of laughter within the historical timeframe Skinner examines and second, by investigating the various theories of laughter that have gained prominence since the terminus of that tradition. If we look, for example, to the types of laughter exemplified in the works of Aristophanes it quickly becomes apparent that the Aristotelian conception of laughter as derision is inadequate for a full understanding of the purposes laughter serves for this author. The comedies of Aristophanes, no doubt, possess much laughter that might be labeled as derisive; we need only recall the scathing treatment of the politician Cleon in Knights to illustrate this point. We might even go so far as to identify entire Aristophanic plays, such as the Clouds, as predominantly employing such derisive, or satirical, laughter. 28 Yet, in a play such as Wasps, satire is subsumed under a larger comic framework, 25 Ibid., p. 91. 26 Ibid., p. 94. 27 Ibid., p. 95. It should be stressed that I do not wish to suggest that Rorty would ideally seek to confine all forms of laughter to the private sphere. In fact, given his strong belief that literature can help us to imagine the various ways in which we act cruelly, there might be a larger place for laughter in Rorty’s conception of literature than he allows for irony. 28 I would argue that we equate such uses of derisive laughter within the Aristophanic corpus, following the work of M.S. Silk, with the satiric sub-class of comedy. As Silk writes in his assessment of the Clouds “Satire is essentially moral – and negative. Its essence is a sense of ‘contradiction between actuality and the ideal’: the feeling that the world is like this, whereas it could and should be something else; the more that something else is specified and

Authors: Lombardini, John.
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5
inclination to humiliate but an inability to empower”
25
, he nonetheless that irony – at least in the form of ironist
philosophy – has, and cannot, do much for equality or freedom.
26
Rather, this type of irony is more suited to the
private goal and pursuit of perfection; in the social sphere, it is not only “ill-suited to public purposes” but further,
“of no use to liberals qua liberals.”
27
My concern then, in this introduction, is two-fold: first, to articulate an alternative vision of laughter, one
that moves beyond the narrow conception of laughter as an expression of scorn and contempt and towards an
appreciation of laughter’s democratic potential; second, to argue that our concerns over the way citizens talk to one
another should be expanded to include laughter as a unique, and potentially democratic, form of discourse. To be
clear, my goal is neither to criticize Skinner, Rawls, Habermas, and Rorty, nor to argue that their respective focuses
are misplaced. Rather, I simply want to suggest, on the one hand, that while Skinner’s historical narrative argues for
the place of laughter in philosophical analysis, it does not exhaust the richness of this tradition. Moreover, if we are
interested in the political implications of laughter, yet concerned over laughter’s anti-democratic elements, it
behooves us to look beyond the tradition Skinner delineates. On the other hand, Rawls’ justificatory liberalism and
Habermas’ discourse ethics both treat crucial aspects of democratic theory and practice; yet, they likewise do not
exhaust all the various ways in which democratic citizens talk to one another. An understanding of what a given
community communally laughs about and at is a particularly useful category of social analysis in identifying the
fundamental structure of that society’s ideology – for identifying, in other words, the basic categories that structured
the political grammar operating within the public sphere. Laughter is also particularly useful in revealing the
fissures and interstices within that same ideology – for revealing the moments in which ideological constructions
break down when confronted with certain brute facts about the world. For both these reasons, I argue that close
attention to laughter and comedy can help us to better understand how democracy functions as a social practice.
The idea that laughter is an expression of contempt and scorn can be countered in two ways: first, by
looking to alternative instantiations of laughter within the historical timeframe Skinner examines and second, by
investigating the various theories of laughter that have gained prominence since the terminus of that tradition. If we
look, for example, to the types of laughter exemplified in the works of Aristophanes it quickly becomes apparent
that the Aristotelian conception of laughter as derision is inadequate for a full understanding of the purposes laughter
serves for this author. The comedies of Aristophanes, no doubt, possess much laughter that might be labeled as
derisive; we need only recall the scathing treatment of the politician Cleon in Knights to illustrate this point. We
might even go so far as to identify entire Aristophanic plays, such as the Clouds, as predominantly employing such
derisive, or satirical, laughter.
28
Yet, in a play such as Wasps, satire is subsumed under a larger comic framework,
25
Ibid., p. 91.
26
Ibid., p. 94.
27
Ibid., p. 95.
It should be stressed that I do not wish to suggest that Rorty would ideally seek to confine all forms
of laughter to the private sphere. In fact, given his strong belief that literature can help us to imagine the various
ways in which we act cruelly, there might be a larger place for laughter in Rorty’s conception of literature than he
allows for irony.
28
I would argue that we equate such uses of derisive laughter within the Aristophanic corpus, following the work of
M.S. Silk, with the satiric sub-class of comedy. As Silk writes in his assessment of the Clouds “Satire is essentially
moral – and negative. Its essence is a sense of ‘contradiction between actuality and the ideal’: the feeling that the
world is like this, whereas it could and should be something else; the more that something else is specified and


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