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IDEX LYON 2016

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LOL! Comedy, humour and satire in the literature and visual arts of the 20th and 21st centuries in Britain

Annual conference of the Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines (SEAC)

The conference on “Comedy, humour and satire in the literature and visual arts of the 20th and 21st centuries in Britain” will focus on the various forms and aspects of laughter, humour, comedy, satire, irony, farce and burlesque in the fields of study of the SEAC (fiction, poetry, drama, visual arts, cinema, photography). Bearing in mind the definitions of theoreticians –Northrop Frye on satire or Henri Bergson on laughter, for instance – and the uses of these modes, tones and genres in the literature and the arts of the past, we will try to determine how 20th- and 21st-century British writers and artists managed to adopt, transform, redefine and/or subvert them, while being aware of their often paradoxical, contradictory and unstable dimension.

In line with issue 36 of the journal “Humoresques” (www.humoresques.fr) but also in keeping with the 2014 SEAC conference on the representation of England and Englishness (www.laseac.fr), contributors are invited to analyse whether there is such a thing as a specifically English sense of humour in 20th and 21st-century literary and artistic works (see the fictional works of Evelyn Waugh, Tom Sharpe, P.G. Wodehouse, Julian Barnes or Zadie Smith). For instance, the campus novels of Kingsley Amis, Malcolm Bradbury or David Lodge, mixed with a sense of the carnivalesque and with parody, seem firmly rooted in a well-defined national context.

Contributors could also reflect on the place and legitimacy granted to comedy, laughter and humour in a British cultural context that often contrasts popular arts/mass production/entertainment with noble arts/elitism, and establishes a hierarchy between them. Laughter is sometimes perceived as a synonym for an escape from reality and the comic mode as a minor art, whereas some writers and artists strongly claim their status as entertainers. In the case of literary or artistic works which are famous for their complexity – those belonging to High Modernism, avant-garde drama and poetry, but also to the microcosm of contemporary art – one may wonder whether it is possible to refer to a select type of laughter only meant for the initiated.

The postmodernist aesthetic has often been characterized as playful, and some critics have suggested that this preference for comic forms and structural irony led to an excessive indulgence in formal auto-referential games and to detachment from affects as well as from the tragic reality of daily life and collective traumas. One could argue however that the comic dimension neither annihilates emotions nor precludes an ideological perspective, but provides a roundabout way to explore the ethical dimension of writing. Indeed, since the Renaissance and the “serio ludere” tradition, it has been shown that playfulness often conceals a polemical intention and that a humorous tone can throw light on social issues. A delicate balance is therefore established between levity and seriousness, irony and ideology, humour and melancholy, comedy and ethics.

In line with these blurrings and shifts, the conference could analyse what Laetitia Pasquet has called “laughing at horror”, which can be traced back to Beckett and to the famous sentence in Endgame: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness”. While Adorno claimed that after the horrors of the Holocaust, “cheerful art” had become impossible, Beckett argued that unhappiness was “the most comical thing in the world”, and that it was possible to (make others) laugh when faced with the worst (see Laughter! by Peter Barnes). Along with the analysis of the destabilizing, aggressive, cynical and bitter laughter of In-Yer-Face drama, contributors could examine the new forms of the absurd (see Far Away by Caryl Churchill), of satire (see The City by Martin Crimp) and of wit – oscillating between tradition and rupture – in contemporary British theatre.

In the field of visual arts, it appears that intericonicity, interpictoriality and intermediality, as well as the recycling of images, can be a source of humour and comedy thanks to the discrepancies thus produced. One thinks of some contemporary artists’ unusual works, such as David Shrigley’s simplistic and humorous drawings, Gilbert and George’s photographs and photomontages, the work of Pop Art artists (Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake, David Hockney) or the various forms of visual satire – for instance caricature – which have a strong mocking, anti-establishment or reforming potential (Yinka Shonibare or the Chapman Brothers).

In poetry, humour is often seen with distrust, as humorous poetry risks being assimilated to light verse (Gavin Ewart, Wendy Cope) and, because of this unbearable lightness, may not be taken seriously. It is arguably in Scotland that the comedic mode has retained its most vigorous presence (Edwin Morgan, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead, W.N. Herbert, Don Paterson), though prominent poets elsewhere have also, of course, had recourse to it (Paul Muldoon, Simon Armitage). Recent years have also witnessed a renewed turn to humour within British experimental poetry (Jeff Hilson, Tim Atkins), inspired, in part, by the influences of American poetry and popular culture.

This SEAC conference will also enable us to examine the relationship between laughter, satire and social and political criticism in the 20th and 21st centuries. This connection emanates directly from Jonathan Swift, but was also tackled by Virginia Woolf in her essay “The Value of Laughter” (1905). Lisa Colleta’s work, Dark Humor and Social Satire in the Modern British Novel (2003) and Jonathan Greenberg’s Modernism, Satire and the Novel (2012) clearly demonstrate how much satire is at the heart of the modernist aesthetic.

In the 1950s and the 1960s in Great-Britain, a satirical revival affected popular culture in the form of live entertainment (The Last Laugh and Beyond the Fringe), radio (The Goon Show with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan), television (That Was the Week That Was, the Monty Python series), the press (Private Eye), and illustration, as shown in Humphrey Carpenter’s A Great, Silly Grin. The British Satire Boom of the 1960s (2000). The character of Nigel Molesworth (by Geoffrey Willans, illustrated by Ronald Searle), a classic of graphic satire, was created in the 1950s and was followed by Ralph Steadman’s satirical drawings and caricatures, but also in contemporary times by the work of Steve Bell and Martin Rowson who illustrate and write satirical “graphic novels” (Rowson’s Gulliver’s Travels revisits the Blair years). To use Paul Gilroy’s terms, this “disbelieving, oppositional laughter” uses ridicule and the grotesque against the various expressions of greed, power and injustice. One will need to take into account the issue of reception, since satirical laughter can only be triggered if both author and reader share similar views. Contributors could examine the hypothesis – expressed by Peter Cook, Jonathan Coe and Paul Gilroy – according to which, in the ultra-contemporary political context, satire and laughter, far from being a means of subversive protest or a threat to the established order, enable the status quo to continue: laughter is so unifying and comforting that it overpowers all opposition.

Jonathan Coe, the author of What a Carve Up!, The Rotters’ Club, and The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, will be the guest of honour of the conference. He himself wrote essays on comedy – “Sinking Giggling into the Sea” and “What’s so Funny about Comic Novels” in 2013 – where he established a distinction between several types of laughter – “melancholy laughter, mad laughter, despairing laughter, angry laughter” –, while his novels include a scathing political satire of Thatcherism and “New Labour”, but are also in the tradition of the 1950s and 1960s British comedies (see Expo 58), thus asserting their popular heritage. Contributors are therefore welcome to propose papers focusing on his work and related to the topic of the conference.

All contributions will be in English. Papers from the conference may be published in the peer-reviewed journal Études britanniques contemporaines.

Scientific committee

  • Catherine Bernard, Professor at University Paris VII, president of the SEAC
  • Jean-Michel Ganteau, Professor at University Montpellier 3, publication director of Études britanniques contemporaines
  • Vanessa Guignery, Professor at ENS de Lyon – IUF, UMR LIRE
  • Catherine Pesso-Miquel, Professor Emeritus at University Lumière Lyon 2
  • Lacy Rumsey, Senior Lecturer at ENS de Lyon – UMR LIRE

Organisation committee

  • Sonia Ferhani, PhD student and lecturer at ENS de Lyon – UMR LIRE
  • Vanessa Guignery, Professor at ENS de Lyon – IUF, UMR LIRE
  • Mathilde Le Clainche, PhD student and lecturer at ENS de Lyon – UMR LIRE
  • Pauline Pilote, PhD student and lecturer at ENS de Lyon – UMR LIRE
  • Lacy Rumsey, Senior Lecturer at ENS de Lyon – UMR LIRE
  • Diane Gagneret, PhD student and lecturer at ENS de Lyon – UMR LIRE

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Vanessa Guignery
Professor of English and Postcolonial Literature at the ENS de Lyon and member of the Institut Universitaire de France in Paris.
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Mise à jour le 8 juin 2015
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