Jessica Voges, M.A.

Englisches Seminar
Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster
Johannisstr. 12-20
D-48143 Münster


Project title: Performing laughter. Function and Effects of Laughter in Black British Literature

The project will be concerned with the function of laughter in contemporary black British literature. It will be argued that laughter can have identity-constituting effects and thus can be seen as an important criterion of analysis for black British literature alongside with gender, ethnicity and class.For the analyses, the performative aspect of laughter in the process of communication will be considered. Therefore, it will be examined what kind of laughter is applied in the texts in order to identify its various functions. Acting on the assumption that laughter is a response to a certain stimulus, it is not only the latter that is of significance in this context. As laughter is highly subjective and depends on social upbringing as well as cultural background, the focus has also to be put on the reasons for laughter, which could be, for example, desire for social integration, avoidance of conflict, or the crossing of cultural boundaries. Furthermore, laughter about oneself or the community one belongs to will be of interest as, by making fun of what influences an individual’s identity, a superior position can be taken that seems to, on the one hand, neglect social or cultural influences but could also stylize and acuminate them. In this context, humour becomes a context-depending code, to which laughter refers. By ‘performing’ laughter, the individual acts according to certain codes, which do not necessarily correspond to his or her own ideas. Thereby not only the multiplicity but also the fluidity of identities is underlined, as the peformative character of laughter indicates an iterative aspect. By aligning one’s laughter to others, the individual adjusts to certain conventions and norms and thus performs social laughter.In black British literature the concept of performative laughter is especially significant in the context of hybrid identities and, closely connected, questions of belonging. For the analyses works by Zadie Smith, Meera Syal and Andrea Levy will be included, in which the focus is not only put on immigrant characters, but also on second-generation characters and their individual struggle of constructing an identity. Therefore theories on black Britishness will be included as well as theories on laughter and performance, including, among others, works by Kadija Sesay, C.L. Innes and James Procter on the one hand, and texts on laughter by John Clement Ball, Max Eastman and Stefanie Köhler on the other.