CFP – Norbert Elias and the Civilizing of Laughter

Special Session Panel, Modern Language Association, Chicago, December 2007

To what extent does the discipline to which the body and bodily functions are subjected in the civilizing process also effect the phenomenon of laughter? How does the censorship of that indecorous display of affective anarchy that is laughter influence the development of normative standards in aesthetics and ethics, from the 17th-century on? How are academic institutions, the discourses of science and medicine as well as the humanities, complicitous in this process of censorship? Why have modern philosophers, from Hegel and Kant, through Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, to Wittgenstein, Bergson and Bataille, been drawn to laughter and jokes?

Send 1-page abstracts and short vitae by 15 March to Anca Parvulescu and Eric Baker.

This entry was posted in Conferences. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to CFP – Norbert Elias and the Civilizing of Laughter

  1. Andrew Hammel says:

    Since no objections were raised and I received three expressions of interest, I’ve scanned and attached the splendid Merkur article by Michael Schröter, in a searchable German-language .pdf. All in the spirit of non-commercial sharing of knowledge, since Merkur makes only a few of its articles available online.

    Speaking of applications of Elias’ thought to new domains, I just thought I’d mention David Garland’s 1990 book Punishment and Modern Society. In Chapter 10 (‘Punishment and Sensibilities’), Garland draws explicitly on Elias to develop a theory of the ‘civilization’ of criminal punishment in Europe. A few representative quotations are below the signature.

    Does anyone happen to know offhand how Garland’s treatment of Elias in this particular area was received within sociological circles?

    Andrew Hammel
    Heinrich-Heine-Universität, Düsseldorf

    “[I]t seems perfectly clear that Elias’ analysis of the development and characteristics of modern sensibilities has a profound importance for the study of punishment, which, as I have argued, is a sphere of social life deeply affected by conceptions of what is and is not ‘civilized.’” (216)

    “[T]he development of self-controls, internalized restraints, and inhibiting anxieties such as fear, shame, delicacy and embarrassment.…[h]ave important consequences for the ways in which we punish in modern society….” (219)

    “Social manners are primarily about the ways in which individuals relate to one another, and so the psychological structures underpinning human relations are also subjected to important changes by the process of civilization. During the course of this long-term change individuals have tended to become more willing—and better able—to adjust their conduct to take into account that of others, and generally more given to identifying other individuals as human beings like themselves who are worthy of respect and consideration. This refinement of manners and sensitivity to the feelings of others is at first a mark of respect for social superiors, and is undertaken consciously and instrumentally as an act of deference to a superior power, in the same way that violence is first renounced by knights in recognition of the prince’s superior force of arms. However, as they are passed from generation to generation, these ways of behaving towards others gradually lose their instrumental aspect and become ways of behaving which individuals feel are right in themselves. Eventually, such manners are adopted towards social equals and even towards social inferiors as expressing the proper way to behave in the company of others.” (220)

  2. Tom Scheff says:

    Not to contradict Elias, since I haven’t read the actual essay. Judging only from the title, there is a problem.

    Michael Billig’s most recent book makes what seems to me a valid point, that most laughter does bite.
    Laughing, he says, is often a form of social control, punishing those who deviate.

    It seems to me, however, that he goes a bit overboard with this thesis. My review in the current Contemp. Soc. explains.

  3. Dittgen says:

    Merkur, Heft 641/641 (September/Oktober 2002)

    With best regards

    Herbert Dittgen

    Univ.-Prof. Dr. Herbert Dittgen
    Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
    Institut für Politikwissenschaft
    Abt. Internationale Politik
    Colonel-Kleinmann-Weg 2
    D-55099 Mainz
    Tel.: 06131/39-23142
    Fax: 06131/39-25642
    Sekretariat: 06131/39-22150

  4. Scheff says:

    Does anyone know what direction Elias took in his project Essay on Laughter?

    Michael Billig has a new book on laughter that is worth reading.

  5. Soffar says:

    I can read German. where can one find the whole aticle ???

    Mohamed Soffar

    APSA Congressional Fellow
    Office of Rep. Jim McDermott
    U.S. House of Representatives
    1035 Longworth House Office Building
    Washington, DC 20515-4707
    Phone: 202 225-3106

  6. Matsinhe says:

    I am waiting for that translation – david

  7. Wouters says:

    For those who are interested and can read German, I have copied the first few lines of Michael Schröter’s excellent essay on Norbert Elias’s Essay on Laughter, ‘Who laughs, cannot bite’, in German ‘Wer lacht, kann nicht beißen’.
    Ein unveröffentlichter Essay on Laughter von Norbert Elias [Merkur Jg. 56 (2002) 641/642: S. 860-873]
    In seinen autobiographischen Aufzeichnungen erzählt Norbert Elias, er habe gelegentlich an einer Untersuchung über das Lachen gearbeitet. Betreffende Papiere sind in seinem Nachlaß erhalten. Der Titel des Projekts war ‘An
    Essay on Laughter’; ein zugehöriges Titelblatt ist auf den 15. Dezember 1956 datiert. Das Nachlaß-Material besteht aus einem Berg von Notizen, zumeist
    Exzerpte, und ca. 60-80 Seiten eigenem Textentwurf, der teils für einen Vortrag gedacht war und teils für einen Essay (von 30.000 Worten). Es handelt sich im wesentlichen um vier unzusammenhängende Fragmente, deren
    Abfolge klar ist, die aber verschiedene Bearbeitungsstufen repräsentieren und bisweilen in mehreren Versionen vorliegen. Trotzdem kann man zur Genüge erkennen, was Elias zu sagen hatte. Ich will hier nicht viel mehr tun, als seinen Gedankengang verdichtet vorzustellen, in enger Anlehnung an den Wortlaut seines Textes und mit Hervorhebung solcher Ideen und Passagen, die mir als besonders originell, charakteristisch oder prägnant erscheinen.


  8. Wouters says:

    Michael Schröter has published an essay in the German literary magazine Merkur, ertitled ‘Wer lacht, kann nicht beißen. Ein unveröffentlichter “Essay on Laughter” von Norbert Elias.’ (Merkur Jg. 56 (2002) 641/642: S. 860-873). Elias’s essay is in the Deutschen Literaturarchiv in Marbach.
    cas wouters

  9. Blomert says:

    Yes he did write about laughter, I don’t know, if the manuscript has survived,

  10. Mennell says:

    Sorry to contradict “Kieferli” (the email was otherwise unsigned) but, yes, Elias did write explicitly on the subject. The hitherto unpublished essay is among Elias’s papers in the Deutsches Literaturarchiv at Marbach/Neckar, and the Board of the Elias Foundation has given permission for it to be translated and published by Eric Baker, the organiser of the proposed session at the MLA.


  11. Scheff says:

    I have written about laughter. For the latest, see # 57 on my website:

    —- kieferli wrote:
    > > No, not directly
    > > But, he has mentioned that the human being has more muscle in his/her face
    > > than any other animal, such as chimpanzee
    > > Socio-biological is it predetermined

  12. Scheff says:

    Wow! What a great problem! Did Elias himself write about laughter?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *