Variations 25 - Humour

deadline for submissions: 
December 31, 2016
full name / name of organization: 
Variations - comparative literature journal of the University of Zurich
contact email: 

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,

laughter, comedy)?

• 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

modern texts?


Abstracts (300-400 words) and a short bio-bibliography may be sent to the editors until

31 December 2016 at the following address: 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.