AT THE VERY LEAST SINCE ANTIQUITY, laughter has been considered a social phenomenon.1 One assumption that most of the corresponding theories agree on is that laughter can be seen as a specifically human attribute. Not only Aristotle underlined this aspect when he claimed that the human is the only animal that laughs; the philosopher Henri Bergson also came to this conclusion: "The comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human."2 Although we can 'laugh' at ourselves (inwardly rather than through physiological release) and at something humorous that we perceive and decode intellectually on a textual or visual level (here, more usually signalled by physiological release of tension after problem-solving), most laughter is relational in the sense of being interpersonal and social.
One central aspect of laughter in social domains that I am particularly interested in concerns intercultural encounter (and even confrontation) in the context of Caribbean-British relations, and in the representation of such encounters in fiction. Here is an example - a passage, taken from Andrea Levy's novel Small Island, which describes the first meeting of two of the main characters, Queenie and Hortense. The excerpt is set in 1948 and describes Hortense's arrival in England, where she wants to meet up again with her husband Gilbert. Queenie, an Englishwoman, rents rooms to immigrants, which often enough causes trouble with her neighbours, who consider the presence of black people as a threat to their 'good' neighbourhood.
'Is this the household of Mr Gilbert Joseph?'
'I beg your pardon?'
'Gilbert Joseph?' I said, a little slower.
'Oh Gilbert. Who are you?' She pronounced Gilbert so strangely that for a moment I was anxious that I would be delivered to the wrong man.
'Mr Gilbert Joseph is my husband - 1 am his wife.'
The woman's face looked puzzled and pleased all at one time. She looked back into the house, lifting her head as she did. Then she turned to me and said, 'Didn't he come to meet you?'
'I have not seen Gilbert', I told her, then went on to ask, 'but this is perchance where he is aboding?'
At which this Englishwoman said, 'What?' She frowned and looked over my shoulder at the trunk, which was resting by the kerbside where it had been placed by the driver of the taxi vehicle.
'Is that yours?' she enquired.
'It's the size of the Isle of Wight. How did you get it there?' She laughed a little. A gentle giggle that played round her eyes and mouth.
I laughed too, so as not to give her the notion that I did not know what she was talking about as regards this 'white island'.3
The concluding sentence here demonstrates laughter's performative force. The first-person narrator explains that Hortense actively chose to laugh in order to make Queenie believe that she understood the joke. She tries to become part of Queenie's in-group by adapting her codes and conventions. In this context, 'in-group' refers to the group that is considered as one's own and as more favourable than other groups (out-groups). This process of categorization offers the individual a high degree of identification with the group. In-group members thus often stereotype out-group members.4
I shall be returning to this passage in due course. In the meantime, and as indicated above, emphasis in the following will be placed on those qualities of laughter that can be interpreted as a performative act in literary texts. Laughter, as consciously applied on the story level, constitutes the focus of attention. It will be argued that laughing partners: i.e. the characters involved in the laughing situation, can become part of a laughing community if the laughter is employed as a strategic instrument. The characters have the opportunity to perform a shift in social status by laughing intentionally, even complicifiy, in specific situations. They acquire the qualities of a laughing community. …