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Abstracts & Papers

The Art of Being Human:

Friendship, Humour, Music, and Death
An Inclusive Interdisciplinary Conference

Saturday 7th March 2020 – Sunday 8th March 2020
Prague, Czech Republic

Why are Representations of Leg Amputees Funny?: Considering Newspaper Cartoons of culs-de-jatte in Nineteenth-Century France
Alexandra Courtois de Viçose
Kenyon College, USA

Key Words:
Caricature, satire, print, press, newspaper, disability, amputee, Veber, France, 19th century

Caricature has long preoccupied art historians and critics; just look at Charles Baudelaire’s repeated mobilization of this pictorial genre in his treatise on laughter (“De L’Essence du Rire,” 1855), or Ernst Gombrich’s psychoanalytic reading of its history in his 1938 article. The number of scholarly studies on nineteenth-century French caricature now rivals its abundant production during that era. However, this rich academic engagement has yet to address caricatural representations of physical disability, and ask: “why are they funny to a nineteenth-century French audience?” My paper addresses the surprising number of cartoons staging real or faked impairments in fin-de-siècle Paris. Specifically, I look at cartoons by various draughtsmen, which shows beggars pretending to be deaf or blind fooling the unsuspecting passerby, as well as a surprising number of depictions of leg amputees (culs-de-jatte). One artist in particular, Jean Veber (1864-1928), elicited a particular obsession with lower limbs amputees, whom he systematically staged in gutters and usually engaged in violent behavior, all in the exaggerated language of caricature. At first glance these works serve as cautionary tales, or are simply cruel in ways fitting the ‘superiority theory of laughter’ advanced by many scholars including Simon Critchley. I propose, however, that their callousness may also hide a broader and more insidious societal malaise. Indeed, I argue that this proliferation was actually a manifestation of national trauma resultant from the disastrous Franco-Prussian war (1870-71), its grave injuries due to new artillery, and inadequate social assistance in the years following the conflict. Ultimately, this project, by closely examining select prints and newspaper illustrations from the decades following the war, thinks about the harnessing of humor as a way to therapeutically deal with the fragility of the human body, during a time of anxiety over genetic degeneration in France and the rise of European eugenics.


Marginalised: Comparative Depictions of Irish and Muslim groups in Satirical Caricatures
Eleanor Parkin-Coates
Université de Lorraine, France

Key Words:
Irish, hooligan, Muslim, Islam, caricatures, cartoon, humour, marginalise, press, satirical

Humour can be a great source of joy, but also a tool to mock and to segregate certain groups from society. Many types of humour are based on the expense of a marginalised group of people and despite different targets, this feature of humour still persists. Visual sources and caricatures have been used throughout history to satire groups seen as “others”, be that in terms of nationality, ethnicity, religion, class or gender. This work takes two examples of such marginalised groups by comparing a short Daily Mail cartoon series parodying the Irish population between 1969-1972, with examples from the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which mock the religion of Islam.

Historians such as Lewis P. Curtis and Michael De Nie, focus on the prominent featuring of the Irish population in nineteenth-century cartoons. John Musgrave-Wood’s Daily Mail series is thus noteworthy not only in terms of its recent date, but also the fact that it refers to the Irish as ‘hooligans’, a term, by this point, more widely associated with football fans. It is significant that this link be reinforced, given the tense context of the Troubles at the time of publication. Additionally, historians have analysed the 2005 Danish ‘Muhammed Cartoons’ controversy, yet contemporary Charlie Hebdo publications remain absent from historiography, despite enormous press attention after the 2015 attacks on their headquarters.

This research therefore offers a new perspective via a qualitative analysis of these publications, considering artistic techniques, captions and both political and historical contexts to underline the potentially offensive nature of satirical humour. The comparison between the two publications will offer insight into very different groups, both frequently marginalised both in the past and today. This work will also demonstrate how humour works at the expense of others, and how this has persisted despite targeting different groups during different periods.


Towards a Humorous Architecture: Revisiting Irony in Learning from Las Vegas
Katerina Zacharopoulou
University College London

Key Words:
Architecture, building, humour, irony, Venturi, Scott Brown, Izenour, Post-Modernism

Although the word “humour” is not encountered frequently in architectural texts, there has been an extended discussion about “irony” in the field. The term has often been attributed to architectural projects, and an increased interest in it emerge around the middle of the 1960s in Europe and the US, in the context of Post-Modernism. Irony has been considered a key concept of this architectural movement, conceived as an opposition to the rigidity and seriousness of Modernism.

The book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, written in 1966 by the architect Robert Venturi, is usually thought to have initiated the discourse on irony in the Post-Modern context. But it is his later work, titled Learning from Las Vegas and co-authored by Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour in 1972, which refers to the notion more explicitly. It supports irony as a desirable design tool, utilized when a building’s form creates contradicting expectations regarding its actual structure or function.

The paper aims to bring forward an ignored aspect of the latter work, which is a suggestion of irony’s potential to be funny. Using “irony” in parallel with words such as “joke” or “wit”, Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour reveal that their design tool is not only meant to contradict expectations, but also to be amusing. This attitude is reflected in other aspects of their work as well, such as the writing style, or the use of the visual language or cartoons and caricatures, both connected with humour.

Finally, the claims that the lack of emphasis on this aspect in architectural history and theory, reflects the state of the disciplinary discourse regarding humour in general. Irony, which can be funny, but not necessarily, allows avoiding the subject of humour, which might be less “appropriate” for an elevated discourse.


Kant and Dancing House: The Body, Incongruity, Oscillation, and Why the Building is and is not Funny
Shawn R. Tucker
Elon University, USA

Key Words:
Kant, Dancing House, Incongruity, Oscillation, Embodiment

Between 1992 and 1996, architects Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunić designed and built Prague’s iconic building The Dancing House (Czech: Tančící dům). This building, which Gehry himself for a time called Fred and Ginger, breaks dramatically with the city’s dominant baroque, gothic, and art nouveau styles. It also breaks even more specifically and dramatically with modernist architectural conventions as embodied in Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram building. The contrast, the incongruity, between various architectural expectations and Dancing House gives rise to the wit and humour Gehry and Milunić’s inspires. Incongruity has been at the core of Kant’s theoretical examinations of humour. Kant’s view is that incongruity has both a mental and a physiological impact. Incongruity causes both a mental and a physical oscillation. This presentation examines how Dancing House may and may not precipitate such oscillations. Kant uses the example of jokes to illustrate his ideas about incongruity’s double impact. Jokes are conveyed via language, yet these disembodied ideas cause embodied responses. Architecture is physical, tactile, and visual, yet it may fail to cause a physical response. Kant’s writings give insights into how Dancing House causes and fails to cause laughter’s physical and mental oscillations.


Laughter in Clown Training: Searching in Silences
Klara van Wyk
Stellenbosch University South Africa

Key Words:
Clown, Training, Laughter, Failure, Gaulier, Danger, Provocateur

This paper will critically discuss contemporary clown training approaches that focus on laughter as a marker of success, indicating audience appreciation. Particular attention will be paid to the lineage of clown teaching influenced by practitioners Jacques Lecoq and Phillipe Gaulier who connect laughter to failure.

Based on practice-led methods, the paper will examine the teaching practices and methods of three contemporary clown pedagogues whose workshops I have participated in, hoping to interrogate and shed light on some of the key complexities around laughter production – in particular, the danger of laughter, the ‘flop’, the ‘personal clown’ and the relationship between the Whiteface and Auguste. This discussion falls within a broader PhD study on the relationship between clowning and theatrical practices, and contemporary uses of the term ‘clown theatre’. By critically addressing the multi-faceted approaches to engendering laughter within clown training and performance, this paper will contribute towards uncovering the challenges that lie in translating teachings about clowning into theatre practice.

As the methodology of this broader study is primarily practice-led, this paper will employ qualitative and reflective methods, including an autoethnographic account of the author as clown student, to explore recent practice. Existing literature (Davison 2013, Lecoq 1997, Bouissac 2015) on clown training and pedagogy will provide a foundation for the discussion.


Clumsy Debussy
Benjamin Lassauzet
GREAM (Strasbourg)

Key Words:
Musical Humour; Debussy; Performance; Clumsiness

In 1907, Debussy wrote to Louis Laloy: “Between ourselves, do you really believe in “humorous” music? For a start, it doesn’t exist on its own; there always has to be a pretext, either words or a situation…”. This statement may be puzzling when one considers the important comic output of this composer (who wrote more than seventy-five works with at least a touch of humour). But in this letter, the composer pointed out an important feature of humor in music: its ambiguity; this is why most of comic works in music rely at least partly on textual devices (title, libretto, program, paratext…).

In his instrumental music, Debussy almost always indicated his humoristic intentions with whimsical titles. In a few cases, he completed the picture by performing himself some of his works. A few were recorded in 1913 on piano rolls (for Welte-Mignon), among which eight can be considered as comic. These documents are a valuable source to understand the meaning of the musical devices employed by the composer to convey humour.

Two of them (“Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” and “Jimbo’s Lullaby”) turn out to be clumsily performed. Since Debussy was a good pianist (if we rely on other recordings of his and on testimonies of his contemporaries), this clumsiness cannot be due to technical failures, but instead seems intentional. As a matter of fact, the paratext in “Jimbo’s lullaby” states “un peu gauche” (a little awkward). But “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” bears no such indication on the score, and instead asks for a very steady playing: the analysis of Debussy’s recording reveals thereby the real signification of the work, which is not deprived of irony.


Finding Alternatives in Liminal Stand-up
Neha Pande
Independent Researcher

Key Words:
Stand-up comedy, Anglo Indian Stand-up, Class/Caste in Stand-up, Gender and Sexuality in Stand-up, Alternative comedy, liminality, liminal stand-up

In India, the caste/class, religion within gender, and sexuality based discriminatory comedy has had been a common place. Also, the intersectionalities specific social and cultural images are transmogrified into jokes to orchestrate laughter.

Stand-up comedy has been viewed and understood from various perspectives, to understand its capability to evoke social change. One of these ideas is of liminality which is explained by Victor Turner as the “mid-transition” abstract space during a rite in which the person going through it is removed, and reintegrated into the society. This time right between the separation and reincorporation is the liminal space where structures are broken. In most of the literature produced this fleeting breaking of the structures is constituted in the language of inverting the hierarchy.

Similarly, alternative comedy has been used in the past to talk about the mainstream culture and its problems but using the same structures which were prevalent in the mainstream culture. Thus the paper tries to converge this commonality between liminality and alternative stand-up comedy, and attempts to explain how stand-up as liminality should be understood as the advanced form of alternative comedy. It can be seen as an abstract concept as well as a concrete performance stage which is fluid in nature, and where the alternative comedy breaks its former mould of reversing the mainstream hierarchy of comedy to create a humorous discourse, but instead creates an inclusive space where even the spectrum of various intersectional identities are broken to become fluid.

It, thus, should not be understood as a genre driven by the patriarchy-oriented aggression and hostility in the form of comedy perpetuated over different groups or identities by mocking or punching them down, instead humorously problematising the idea of negative power ingrained in the mainstream, along with creating a space to allow humorous discourses of various identities about several ideas including mainstream ideas. This, thus, while has the potential to create a completely different definition of funny, also changes the role that the comedy can play in not only making this art form but the society more inclusive and sensitive.


‘I am what I am’: Trumpian Rhetoric in Rob Sears’ The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump (2017)
Elena Nistor

-no abstract available –


Comedy Collides with the Courtroom
Rachel DiCioccio
University of Rhode Island
Kingston, Rhode Island

Laura Little
Temple University Beasley School of Law
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Key Words:
Litigation process, law, aggressive humor, ad hominin humor, sarcasm, affiliative humor

The adversary system of litigation in many common law countries follows the model of a ritualized battle between opponents. Interspersed throughout the litigation process are inflection points where interpersonal conflict becomes particularly prominent. These conflicts are an integral part of the system’s design—with attorneys each acting independently to fulfill their professional obligation to advocate zealously for disputing clients.

How does humor operate in this system? Tracing an overview of key conflict points in the litigation process, this presentation analyzes the effect of different humor types in diffusing or exacerbating those conflicts. The presentation describes real life examples to illustrate how participants in the legal process (lawyers, clients, judges, and jurors) use aggressive humor, ad hominin humor, sarcasm, and affiliative humor. While some humor styles may soften and humanize the interpersonal interactions among the participants, the question arises whether other styles are more effective in achieving the system’s ultimate goal of obtaining legitimate, just, and fair dispute resolution. Questions further emerge about the circumstances that humor back fires and undermines the goals of litigation.

This joint presentation and paper has many interdisciplinary layers. On one hand, Professor Little explores how comedy mixes with legal doctrine and practice. On the other hand, Professor DiCioccio analyzes this mixture through the lens of communications theory and humor concepts.


What It Means to Be Horse: The Cosmic Horror, and Humour, of Gulliver’s Travels
Matthew Risling
University of Michigan

Key Words:
Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, H.P. Lovecraft, humour, satire, horror, cosmic horror

Throughout his Travels to Several Remote Nations of the World (1726), Lemuel Gulliver is in constant fear. He is imprisoned, attacked by beasts and pirates, and nearly executed on multiple occasions. Yet, for all this peril, Gulliver’s most profound terror comes when he encounters a race of horses who may be slightly more rational than us. This throws him into existential crisis as he reaches the bleak conclusion that humanity may be of no profound significance. Scholars generally take Swift at his word that Travels means to challenge the notion “that humans, unlike other beasts are rational animals.” However, the humour of an ending in which Gulliver rejects humans and reveres horses can only work for a reader who holds to the conviction that reason really does set us above the beasts. The truly horrifying prospect, which Gulliver may come closer to understanding than his reader, is that we are indeed rational animals, but that fact is a matter of cosmic unimportance.

This paper approaches Travels through the lens of cosmic horror, a genre built on the unsettling notion of a cosmos that is utterly indifferent to us. Reading Swift’s satire alongside the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, I discuss an under-theorized connection between related sub-genres of humour and horror. Scholarship on the topic traditionally focuses on humor as it pertains to that which is overtly scary or violent, appealing to some form of incongruity theory. I argue, incongruity is inadequate to explain cosmic satire, which, like cosmic horror, rests on the simple premise that existence has no greater meaning. Why do readers encounter Travels as an uplifting work despite its unrelenting nihilism. I suggest cosmic satire is a fundamentally dissonant mode that simultaneously confronts and denies the possibility of a “World-without-Us.”

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