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Laughter and Its Interdiction

Friday, October 23, 2015
4:00 AM
3308 MLB German Conference Room

Laughter – promoted and forbidden. With particular reference to Nietzsche, Heine and Kafka.

Laughter comes in many forms. There’s mad or diabolical laughter, black humour, laughing till we cry, shaking with laughter, and so on. Kant described it as “the affect that agitates the intestines and the diaphragm”. A non-verbal expression of the body, laughter is a topic that has challenged philosophers from Aristotle to Nietzsche, Helmuth Plessner to Hans Blumenberg. Among other things these writers ask, how and why do we laugh, at what and about whom do we laugh, etc. Why, to quote an example from Jean Paul, are we inclined to laugh when we read that somebody, instead of falling on his knees, falls on his kneecap. We laugh because we become aware of a difference, the difference between a solemn act of devotion and banal anatomy. Other questions that Prof. Janz will address in his lecture include:

What is the social function of laughter ? Is it subversive or harmless? “The usual artillery of Ridicule is Wit”, Corbin Morris suggested.

Why and when is laughter forbidden, and by whom? Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” offers an answer.

Drawing on Nietzsche, Blumenberg and others, the lecture will examine whether some of the theoretical notions they developed can help us to analyze scenarios of laughter in Heine’s “The Rabbi of Bacherach” and in Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy”.


Rolf-Peter Janz is Prof. em. in the German Department of The Free University Berlin. His publications include the following books: Autonomie und soziale Funktion der Kunst: Studien zur Ästhetik von Schiller und Novalis (Stuttgart, 1973); Arthur Schnitzler: Zur Diagnose des Wiener Bürgertums im Fin de Siècle (Stuttgart, 1977) [with Klaus Laermann]; Friedrich Schiller: Theoretische Schriften (Frankfurt, 1992), Faszination und Schrecken des Fremden (Frankfurt, 2000), Schwindelerfahrungen: Zur kulturhistorischen Diagnose eines vieldeutigen Phänomens, ed. R.-P. Janz et al. (Amsterdam, New York, 2003), Labyrinth und Spiel: Umdeutungen eines Mythos, ed. Hans Richard Brittnacher, R.-P. Janz (Göttingen, 2007), as well as numerous articles on Goethe, Kleist, Kafka, W. Benjamin, and others.

His scholarship covers the literature and aesthetics of Classicism and Romanticism, Fin de Siècle Vienna, and the Weimar Republic, as well as the reshaping of Greek myths in 20th-century literature. His current research focuses on the connection between the sublime and the ridiculous, and on text-image relations.

He has been a visiting professor in Bochum (1977-78), Sydney (1984), Fes (Maroc, 1998), at the University of Pennsylvania (1999), and at Peking University (2006, 2010); he was also a fellow at the Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften (IFK), Vienna (1994) and at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS, 2009-2010).

Rolf-Peter Janz