Where meaning collapses: a creative exploration of the role of humour and laughter in trauma

  • Sylvia Alston

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    The thesis consists of a full-length novel and an exegesis that examines the ways in which humour can be used to restore the symbolic order and serve as a means of regaining control, thus allowing those involved in the most disturbing, painful and challenging situations to feel less powerless. The research component of the thesis involved critical reading, fieldwork, observations, and personal interviews. The texts examined include works by Michael Billig, Henri Bergson and Julia Kristeva, in particular her reference to the act of laughing at the abject as a kind of horrified 'apocalyptic laughter, a compulsion to confront that which repels (Kristeva 1982,pp. 204-206). As part of the fieldwork, I completed training to become a Laughter Club leader. Laughter Clubs are based on the notion that laughter, even fake laughter, is beneficial. This concept is explored in more detail in the exegesis. The fieldwork also included training in laughter-generating activities for students and staff at two local primary schools. The observational component, which involved the Australian War Memorial, the 'Reveries: Photography and Mortality' exhibition, Norwood Crematorium and the children's garden and babies' rose garden at the Gungahlin cemetery, enabled me to examine images and memories of death as well as the responses of other visitors. The final component of my research involved personal interviews. The participants in these interviews were drawn from a diverse range of fields including: volunteers at a local hospice, hospital clowns, general practitioners, cancer survivors and their carers, a psychiatrist, nurses, a paramedic, a police officer, a hospital teacher and bereaved parents. The findings from this research provided the framework for the creative piece, a novel set in present-day Canberra. The story begins one autumn evening when thirteen-year-old Sam is found unconscious and bleeding from a head wound. By the time Maggie, Sam's widowed mother, arrives at the hospital, Sam has regained consciousness. His x-rays show a large mass in his brain and he is kept in for further tests. The results confirm that Sam has an inoperable tumour. Maggie and Sam rely on humour in their interactions both with each other and with other people as a means of maintaining that 'baseline of social control' (Kristeva 1982,p. 99),staying on the edge of what Kristeva refers to as the place 'where meaning collapses' (p. 2). Humour is their anchor, enabling them to maintain a grip on their new normality. And, as if having a dying child isn't enough to cope with, Maggie is being pursued by a handsome and slightly younger man. Both the findings in my exegesis, and the creative work they led to, suggest that although there has been an enormous amount of research undertaken over the previous thirty or so years, there is no conclusive proof that humour can be closely correlated with health. At best, humour can provide a means of controlling that which would otherwise be outside our control.
    Date of Award2009
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorPaul Magee (Supervisor), Greg Battye (Supervisor), Maureen Bettle (Supervisor) & Jen Webb (Supervisor)

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