Variations 25 - Humour
Variations 25 (2017)
Variations is the journal for comparative literary studies at the University of Zurich. It publishes contributions in
three languages (German, French and English) and is a forum for research that helps advance academic exchange in
literary studies. Each issue gathers articles on a particular topic, followed by literary and artistic contributions, as well
as reviews of recently published research in comparative literary studies.
“Consequently I place myself in this breach. […] I divide my inner self
into the finite and the infinite factors […].”
(Jean Paul, School for Aesthetics)
The topic of humour is particularly well suited to become the focus of a multilingual journal of
comparative literature. The etymology of the term already points to its long and complex history
of linguistic change, differentiation and reinterpretation. Originating in the Latin word humores,
which refers to classical and early modern humoral pathology and concomitant theories of
temperament and character, humour became increasingly prominent in literature through works
such as Gargantua et Pantagruel, Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy. As the term gained in importance
and prestige, it became associated more particularly with England and the middle classes.
Through the eighteenth century, humour developed from a pejorative term for socially deviant
behaviour into a form which enables the reinterpretation of nonconformity as something
positive, signifying individuality and style.
The development of humour thus witnesses to a long and intense negotiation of concepts of
bourgeois subjectivity between idealistic principles and their individual, realistic manifestations.
This process involves various rhetorical forms of the comic: interruption, reversal, mechanisation
and masquerade. The complex, conflicting relationship between self-conception and its
realisation becomes visible in the ideal of a self that is plural and constituted by an interplay of
contradictions, contrasts and ambiguities. Plurality in this sense implies, among other things, the
concept of narrative polyphony and hermeneutic concepts of meaning which are probed and
negotiated in literature. Within the German-speaking world, it was especially Jean Paul who drew
on humour’s capacity to combine opposing perspectives for his aesthetic theory and practice.
From this basis, two extreme positions with regard to humour developed in the nineteenth
century. On the one hand, humour was perceived as a pathologically self-reflexive form of
narration which should be purged from literature. On the other hand, humour was celebrated as
a form enabling the reconciliation of opposites.
Humour is thus situated between criticism and the prospect of integrative closure. This also
points to the way in which humour is connected to the resistance inherent in the comic, which,
despite and through its subordination to the tragic genre, remains its critical counterpart.
Examples of this from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century range from Friedrich
Nietzsche’s concept of the Dionysian to Mikhail Bakhtin’s revaluation of the carnivalesque and
Henri Bergson’s delineation of a philosophical theory of laughter. In a supplement to his theory
of ‘Witz’ (wit/joke), Sigmund Freud even concedes to humour the capacity to occasionally wrest
enjoyment from the superego. Within a larger historical perspective, humour in the twentieth
century gains a special position as a means to cope with and confront totalitarian regimes.
Humour oscillates and changes; it lends importance to the unimportant and makes the significant
appear insignificant. To what extent and how permanently it does so remains to be established
anew (and in actu) in each specific situation. Due to its focus on the subjective, humour can best
be studied in its manifestation in a concrete literary text. The range of relevant aspects and
questions to be discussed is thus wide:
• What is the role of humour in different linguistic and social contexts (aesthetically,
historically, as a medium of communication)? How is humour transmitted from one
context to another, and how are different approaches to humour demarcated from each
• How can humour be described in contrast to other forms of the comic (irony, wit, satire,
• What rhetorical structure inheres in the humoristic? How can it be identified as a form
either of criticism or of reconciliation? Can such labels be taken as unambiguous, or are
there transitions and intersections between them?
• How have humour and its conceptualisation changed in the course of literary history and
the history of theory and criticism? Where do processes of transformation, caesuras and
ruptures manifest themselves?
• What is the contemporary discourse of humour, and how does it manifest itself in
Abstracts (300-400 words) and a short bio-bibliography may be sent to the editors until
31 December 2016 at the following address: email@example.com. We publish articles in
German, English and French. Applicants will be notified about acceptance or rejection of their
proposals in January 2017. The completed articles are to be sent to the editors no later than
15 May 2017 and must not exceed 32’000 characters. Please note that Variations also welcomes
literary and artistic contributions such as drawings, collages, and photographs that need not
necessarily be specific to the topic of the issue.