From Thomas Hobbes' fear of the power of laughter to the compulsory, packaged "fun" of the contemporary mass media, Billig takes the reader on a stimulating tour of the strange world of humour. Both a significant work of scholarship and a novel contribution to the understanding of the humourous, this is a seriously engaging book' - David Inglis, University of Aberdeen This delightful book tackles the prevailing assumption that laughter and humour are inherently good. In developing a critique of humour the author proposes a social theory that places humour - in the form of ridicule - as central to social life. Billig argues that all cultures use ridicule as a disciplinary means to uphold norms of conduct and conventions of meaning. Historically, theories of humour reflect wider visions of politics, morality and aesthetics. For example, Bergson argued that humour contains an element of cruelty while Freud suggested that we deceive ourselves about the true nature of our laughter. Billig discusses these and other theories, while using the topic of humour to throw light on the perennial social problems of regulation, control and emancipation.

Victorian Relief Theory

Victorian relief theory

In 1902 a young French philosopher Ludovic Dugas commented that ‘every theory of laughter bears the imprint of a philosophy’ (1902: 138). It was a sensible observation, since all major theories of humour involve more than just making predictions about when laughter might erupt. If they hope to explain funniness, they have to make sense of seriousness. Certainly it has not been difficult to find philosophical imprints upon the theories of superiority or incongruity. These theories came into the world trailing the clouds of philosophical glory that are associated with figures such as Hobbes and Locke. Likewise, the relief theory of humour, to which Dugas was himself attracted, was much more than a simple prediction that laughter acts to relieve ...

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