UC Berkeley History of Art Department

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Laughter: A Human Characteristic in Classical Imagery

Rolf Michael Schneider, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München


My interest in representations of emotion, particularly laughter, took shape while I was studying Hellenistic and Roman sculptures of satyrs. My questions have been rather ambitious. How distinctly were (and could be) emotions expressed in classical imagery? Whose faces and/or bodies were affected by laughter? Who commissioned such images and for what purposes? In which social and religious places was visual laughter familiar? How does it relate to (present) concepts of (ancient) history? Influential for my research have been inter alia studies on the carnivalesque (Michail Bachtin), on Darwin and facial expression (Paul Ekman), on laughter as a phenomenon of cultural psychology (Stephen Halliwell), on the sinister, bare-teethed Gorgo (Jean-Pierre Vernant), and on medieval laughter (Jaques Le Goff). Most profoundly, however, I have profited from the essay ‘Lachen und Weinen: Eine Untersuchung nach den Grenzen menschlichen Verhaltens’ (1941), written by Helmuth Plessner. He developed a type of philosophical biology and anthropology which, in cultural studies on laughter, has gone for the most part unnoticed. It was he who made me aware of the fundamental human relationship between laughter and body. As laughter is a crucial property of man (Aristotle, de an. 3.10) a key question of my lecture is why the visually ‘obsessed’ cultures of Greece and Rome produced countless texts negotiating virtually all aspects of (the paradoxes of) laughter but almost no equivalent images. What price had such a society to pay when it limited laughter in its otherwise omnipresent and very human-like imagery so radically? Keeping this in mind I will discuss in my lecture the difficulties encountered when distinguishing between smiling, grinning, and laughing in imagery (in contrast to texts) and the relationships between laughter, face, and body. In a further step I will tackle two case studies: the ‘Archaic Smile’ and laughter in the world of Dionysus. At the end I will relate my conclusions to the normative aesthetics of ancient imagery - which, as far as laughter is concerned, seems to border on the non-human.

Prof. Dr. Rolf Michael Schneider has been invited to U.C. Berkeley as part of Berkeley's exchange program with the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. He will be giving two lectures on behalf of the Department of History of Art and the Department of Classics.