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Laughter: a Transdisciplinary Approach (IL024)

"Our excuse for attacking the problem in our turn must lie in the fact that we shall not aim at imprisoning the comic spirit within a definition. We regard it, above all, as a living thing. However trivial it may be, we shall treat it with the respect due to life. We shall confine ourselves to watching it grow and expand. Passing by imperceptible gradations from one form to another, it will be seen to achieve the strangest metamorphoses. We shall disdain nothing we have seen."
- Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic


Laughter is one of the most frequent and important manifestations of emotion and affect in social interaction, yet it tends to be ignored in the growing field of the study of emotion. What makes us laugh? What happens when we laugh? Why do we laugh? Indeed, what is laughter? All these questions and more will be the subject of this module. We will examine the phenomenon of laughter from a wide variety of disciplinary perspectives including neuroscience, philosophy, film and television, and literary studies. Students will be expected to bring examples of what makes them laugh to sessions, and complete a reflective journal on the experience of the module.

Structure (2018-19)

The module leader will attend all of each session, to integrate and stimulate the interdisciplinary learning. The teaching and learning approach will embody an interdisciplinary emphasis, using IATL’s Open-space Learning pedagogies balanced by methods, including reflection and discussion, with which students are more likely to be familiar.

The core design is that each week a subject specialist will deliver 60 minutes of discipline- grounded material; this section is followed by a further 60 minutes in which the students and module leader will develop the learning in an interdisciplinary style, including using the week’s set text/film.

Students will also be required, as part of a formative assessment process, to bring to the seminar each week a short analysis (300 words) of either a cultural artifact related to laughter (sound or video clip, blog, etc), or a piece of scholarly work, or any other disciplinary item that engages with the idea of laughter.

The module will consist of a variety of disciplinary sessions combined with practical workshops, all of which will be facilitated by Carolin Debray and/or Nese Ceren Tosun. Indicative sessions are as follows:

Week 1, October 3rd. Introduction, Carolin Debray. Nese Ceren Tosun: What makes you laugh? Why?

Week 2, October 10th. Psychology, Thomas Evans: the session will feature an introduction to a prominent perspective within psychology that can be used to explain humour and laughter. The psychometric approach, considers how we can measure (and thus conceptualize) different types of humour, and the way in which humour styles holistically function within applied areas.

Week 3, October 17th. Carolin Debray, Nese Ceren Tosun: Building a theory of laughter.

Week 4., October 24th. Psychology, Thomas Evans: another prominent perspective in Psychology is discourse analysis, which we will use to discuss how we can use humour to construct an identity, and how this links to what the speaker is trying to achieve - laughter. This perspective will be illustrated through analysis of real-life verbal and written humour.

Week 5, October 31st. Neuroscience, Nick Dale: Warwick's Ted Pridgeon Professor of Neuroscience will offer a session on laughter and the brain.

Week 6, November 7th. Reading Week.

Week 7, November 14th. Sociology, Kate Fox. Kate is both an academic and a professional stand-up poet.

Using sociological models, including Bourdieu's work on Cultural Capital, and feminist, Queer and social movement theories, this session will showcase examples from stand up comedy, spoken word, politics and the media to look at the ways that laughter and humour can be used to resist power and construct identities. The session also looks at how useful humour might be as an academic tool which can disrupt monolithic discourses of all kinds. From Michael Moore and Mark Thomas to Bridget Christie, Russell Brand and Josie Long, comedians are increasingly becoming activists. How does this square with the idea that we're "only" joking? The session will include: an introduction to relevant sociological theories about comedy and humour- as well as looking at the important role that Embodied Cultural Capital has to play in the production and reception of comedy (including a round of the Cultural Capital game - Bourdieu used the idea of a game as a metaphor, but this is an actual game with prizes!) Also, illustrations of resistant humour - from The Daily Show to stand-ups and some of my own performance auto-ethnography (including a consideration of auto-ethnography as a resistant form in academia- a form which is often tragic but could be funny). Finally there will be a workshop element in which we experience humorous ways to say the unsayable - not necessarily the taboo or offensive - but the things which disrupt everyday practices of normality.

Week 8, November 21st. Mark Hinton, Centre for Lifelong Learning: Clowning workshop. Mark, who has trained in clown and fool with key teachers of modern theatre clowning from Brazil, France, Belgium and the UK, will facilitate a workshop investigation of the relationship between the foolish and the funny.

Week 9, November 28th. Carolin Debray & Nese Tosun: Laughter in different contexts.

Week 10, December 5th. Carolin Debray, Nese Ceren Tosun, closing workshop.

Module convenors

Dr Carolin Debray (C dot Debray dot 1 at warwick dot ac dot uk)

Dr Nese Ceren Tosun
(N dot Tosun at warwick dot ac dot uk)


Term 1 (Autumn) 2018-19
Wednesdays, 13.00-15.00


Room H0.03
Humanities Building


For 15 CATS:

50% Marking exercise and
Essay (1000 words)
50% Reflective journal (5000 words)

For 12 CATS:

50% Marking exercise and
Essay (1000 words)
50% Reflective journal (4000-5000 words)