Jean-Michel Rabaté – A Time to Laugh – Session 3

Event Date: 8 June 2017

Room 532
Birkbeck Main Building
Birkbeck, University of London
Torrington Square
London WC1E 7HX

The Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities presents:

BIH Masterclass: A Time to Laugh – Session 3

Speaker: Professor Jean-Michel Rabaté (University of Pennsylvania)

The recent US campaign and fraught election results have reminded us of the loaded political significance of political jokes and aggressive laughter. This masterclass will aim to explore the ideological underpinnings of laughter, its links with affect theory, and its impact on the culture of modernism. We will discuss a few foundational texts by Marx, Freud, Bergson and Lacan, and read literary texts by Gide, Beckett, Kafka, Lewis. Because the structure suggested by the Biblical quote, ‘A time to laugh’, is time-based, the three seminars will follow a temporal schema, while focusing on the question of the modern.

Session three: ‘Excess laughter: the Future’ will take us from Marx to Freud and from Gide to Bataille and Lacan. My ultimate aim would be to link the irrepressible laughter that caught Kafka by surprise one day as he faced the president of his insurance company (‘… now that I was in full spate, I was of course laughing not only at the current jokes, but at those of the past and the future and the whole lot together’) and Walter Benjamin’s insight that the key to Kafka’s work could be found provided one were able to extract the ‘comic aspects from Jewish theology.’

Chair: Professor Esther Leslie (Birkbeck)

Recommended reading:

Freud, The Joke and its relation to the Unconscious, translated Joyce Crcik, London, Penguin, 2003.
Henri Bergson, Laughter, on line, project Gutenberg.
Walter Redfern, ‘Bad Jokes and Beckett,’ in French Laughter, Oxford U.P., 2008, p. 161-175.
Patricia Gherovici and Manya Steinkoler, editors, Lacan, Psychoanalysis and Comedy, Cambridge U. P. 2016.

Jean-Michel Rabaté, is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. One of the founders and curators of Slought Foundation in Philadelphia (, he is a managing editor of the Journal of Modern Literature. Since 2008, he has been a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Rabaté has authored or edited 38 books on modernism, psychoanalysis, contemporary art, philosophy, and writers like Beckett, Pound and Joyce. Recent books include Lacan Literario (2007), 1913: The cradle of modernism (2007, Chinese translation 2013), The Ethic of the Lie (2008), Etant donnés: 1) l’art, 2) le crime (2010). The Ghosts of Modernity has been republished in 2010. In 2013, he has edited A Handbook of Modernism Studies and a new French translation of Joyce’s Exiles. Recent titles include Crimes of the Future (2014), The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and Psychoanalysis, The Pathos of Distance (2016); Think, Pig! Beckett at the limit of the human (2016), and Les Guerres de Derrida (2016).

This is the third of three sessions that make up this Masterclass.

A Time to Laugh – Session 1: Reflex laughter: the Past
A Time to Laugh – Session 2: Machine laughter: the Present
A Time to Laugh – Session 3: Excess laughter: the Future

Introduction by Professor Esther Leslie (Birkbeck):


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