Michael Ryan Skolnik’s workblog
Studies in Games and Performance

Notes on Bergson’s Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (Part 1?)

On the urging of my primary PhD supervisor, I’ve started reading Henri Bergson’s 1899 essay collection, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, which is available via Project Gutenberg. I’d read some of the (45th edition, 1938) Felix Alcan French copy at the University of melbourne library, and then switched over to the English translation when I realized my interlibrary borrowing privileges lapsed again. To acclimate myself to writing again after not doing very much post-submission, I’m going to jot down some notes and translations here, which might be of interest to some people:

“Que signifie le rire? Qu’y a-t-il au fond du risible? Que trouverait-on de commun entre une grimace de pitre, un jeu de mots, un quiproquo de vaudeville, une scène de fine comédie? Quelle distillation nous donnera l’essence, toujours le meme, à laquelle tant de produits divers empruntent ou leur indiscrète odeur ou leur parfum délicat? Les plus grands penseurs, depuis Aristote, se sont attaqués a ce petit problem, qui toujours se dérobe sous l’effort, glisse, s’échappe, se redresse, impertinent défi jeté a la speculation philosophique.” (1)

What does laughter signify? What is at the bottom of the laughable? What would we find in common between making a face, wordplay, a vaudeville exchange, a scene of fine comedy? What distillation would give us that essence, the same every time, that so many diverse products draw either their indiscrete odor or delicate scent from? The greatest thinkers, since Aristotle, have attacked this little problem, that always conceals itself under scrutiny, slides, slips away, rights itself, an impertinent challenge to philosophical speculation. (My translation)

In game studies, we have a tendency to think of play along these lines, as something that we know when we see, instinctually, but whose formal characteristics elude us. It’s fascinating to think about such fundamental parts of the human experience, even perhaps such linked ones as laughter and play, provoking the same philosophical anxiety.  How many others are there?

Exapanding on this a little, Bergson adds:

“Notre excuse, pour aborder le problem a notre tour, est que nous ne viserons pas à enfermer la fantaisie comique dans une définition. Nous voyons, en elle, avant tout, quelque chose de vivant.” (1-2)

Our excuse, to approach the problem, is that we don’t aim to enclose comic fantasy within a definition. We see in it, above all, a living thing. (My translation.)

The similarity to ideas of play is pretty striking here, where it’s not just a living thing, but a vital thing. From early observations of play in animals and infants, from both sociological and psychological perspectives (van Gennep, Piaget, Bateson) play is at obnce central to development but manifests itself in myriad, sometimes disconnected ways.

Bergson tries to pin down some fundamental characteristics of humour/comedy/what is laughable, and he says some really interesting stuff here, especially that:

1. ) Laughter is human – for us to be able to find things humourous, we have to ascribe human attributes to those non-human things. We might have laughed at Garfield hating Mondays because we hate Mondays, even though Garfield doesn’t have to go to work, and can content himself with gorging on lasagna and kicking Odie off a table. because our hatred of Mondays is projected by Garfield, it’s funny. Bergson also gives the example of a hat. The fabric of a hat, or its shape, isn’t funny save for how we project humourous meaning onto it. Here a picture is worth a thousand words:

The fedora itself isn't funny, the human qualities that a class of people who wear fedoras attribute to the fedora, and the folly that we project onto those people, however, is fucking hilarious.

The fedora itself isn’t funny, the human qualities that a class of people who wear fedoras attribute to the fedora are funny. The folly that we attribute to those people is fucking hilarious, and allows laughing at a decontextualized picture of a fedora to make sense.


Abstractly, I wonder a bit about object-oriented ontology and how it might relate to the human-centric approach to comedy that Bergson proposes. All objects may exist equally, but that has little bearing on the determinacy of their humourousness. Similarly, this ties into ideas around games and players, and the contested idea that games are artefacts completed by their players rather than stand-alone assemblages of code/art assets (I’m on the side of the former).

2) Laughter is accompanied by the absence of emotion:

“le rire n’a pas de plus grand ennemi que l’émotion.” (4)

Laughter has no greater enemy than emotion. (My translation.)

We laugh when we’re relaxed, calm, indifferent. – when we’re not emotionally attached or attuned to situations, we have an easier time seeing the laughable in them. We have to temporarily put those attachments aside to laugh (see next quotation).

3) Laughter is social:

“Le comique exige donc enfin, pour produire tout son effet, quelque chose comme une anesthésie momentanée du coeur. Il s’adresse à l’intelligence pure. Seulement, cette intelligence doit rester en contact avec d’autres intelligences. […] On ne goûterait pas le comique si l’on se sentait isolé. Il semble que le rire ait besoin d’un écho. (6)

To produce its full effect, the comic requires something like a momentary anaesthesia of the heart. Comedy addresses itself purely to the intellect. However, this intellect must stay in touch with other intellects. We wouldn’t taste the comic if we felt alone. It seems that laughter needs an echo. (My translation.)


How much is laughter like games in these respects?

Are games human? Either in that they are human-designed, human-played, or both (see Staffan Bjork and Jesper Juul’s “Zero Player Games” for some possibilities for non human-played games, as the idea of zero player games isn’t intuitive), yes, but do games function in a similar way to laughter and fedoras where we project what makes them game-like onto them above and beyond rules?

Are games accompanied by the absence of emotion? Sort of. The idea of some idealized play-state that we are capable of entering, be it immersion (ugh), attention (see: Ben Abraham), flow (Csikszentmihalyi), engrossment (Goffman 1974), engagement (McMahan 2003), incorporation (Calleja 2011), or whatever, seems to draw on this distancing ourselves from our emotional states and entering into that of the game. It’s not as if we’re suddenly tabula rasa, but there may be something to the idea that games can be most impactful in such circumstances as humour can.

Are games social? In so many ways, though they can sure be anti-social in great measure.

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