August 2, 2021

a story of democratic laughter

“The Empire of Laughter. XIXe-XXe century ”, edited by Matthieu Letourneux and Alain Vaillant, CNRS Editions, 998 p., € 32, digital € 23.

Under the guise of a hefty university sum, The Empire of Laughter is a good read. Not, in a simplistic way, because of its object: the authors never seek the right word nor the easy connivance with the reader. If one is often amused by the illustrations, of a remarkable variety, the essential is not there. It is by taking laughter seriously that the book provides real pleasure.

Taking it seriously, over time, is first and foremost to offer “Stereoscopic encyclopedia” of its presence and its uses, from its flourishing under the July Monarchy (1830-1848) to its digital avatars. From 1830, the relaxation of censorship and the rise of the press, which allowed Charles Philipon (1800-1862) to draw his famous “pears” to ridicule Louis-Philippe, indeed marked the entry into modernity. laughter. Since then, it has been deployed in a public space, where it simultaneously becomes a weapon and a commodity: the vector of the fiercest criticisms as well as the most consensual commercial successes, Charlie Hebdo as Welcome to the Ch’tis. Far from being anecdotal or marginal, laughter turns out to be part of the political, media and market fabric of the contemporary world.

Laughter grammars

To understand the great articulations and their infinite variations, the work, under the direction of the professors of literature Matthieu Letourneux and Alain Vaillant, is structured in four axes. The historical approach makes it possible first of all to grasp the laughter in a changing environment, under the effect of legal modifications (the very liberal 1881 law on the press thus marks a turning point), but also of regime changes and technological innovations. The press, therefore, the theater, the cinema, the radio, the television, the Internet successively secrete their own grammars of laughter.

Read also (2016): ” To laugh. Tractatus philo-comicus ”, by Yves Cusset: laughter, an authentic form of wisdom

These are approached from a more theoretical angle, sometimes jargon, in a second part which considers the aesthetics of laughter and the “Categories of the laughable”, enumerated and finely studied: satire, parody, irony, nonsense… Against the idea of ​​the harmlessness of laughter, the third part deals with the most biting facets, the most unpleasant at times: protest and political laughter, but also xenophobic laughter and misogynist laughter, for example. The book ends with an overview of the “Culture of laughter”, in the theater, in songs, comics, in the form of sketches or memes, and in so many other media lending themselves to beautiful analyzes that intersect literary, historical and sociological approaches.

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