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Gustar, Jennifer, Caleb Sivyer and Sarah Gamble, eds., Ludics and Laughter as Feminist Aesthetics: Angela Carter at Play

Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2021, 288 p.
Michelle Ryan
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Gustar, Jennifer, Caleb Sivyer and Sarah Gamble, eds., Ludics and Laughter as Feminist Aesthetics: Angela Carter at Play, Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2021, 288 p.

Texte intégral

The spiraling tornado of Fevvers’ laughter began to twist and shudder across the globe, as if a spontaneous response to the giant comedy that endlessly unfolded beneath it, until everything that lived and breathed, everywhere, was laughing (Nights at the Circus, 295).

1Angela Carter’s writing is riddled with references to play, be it Fevvers’s explosive laughter, or the Colonel’s ‘Ludic Game’ in Nights at the Circus, the self-reflexive story ‘In Pantoland’, or her final novel Wise Children: ‘What a joy it is to dance and sing!’ (232). As a result, Bakhtinian approaches to her work have been numerous, and many critics have tried to tease out the complex strands of Carter’s intertextual games. This volume of essays seeks to develop ‘the role of laughter and the ludics’ in Carter’s works, ‘as her uses of humour and her play with concepts and antecedents are routinely remarked in passing but rarely examined in their own right’ (3).

2Game theory was popular in the 1990s, and one might wonder at first why Jennifer Gustar, Caleb Sivyer and Sarah Gamble have decided to revive this critical approach today. Gustar observes that a rigorous approach to Carter’s literary play is not visible in the collective, international corpus of Angela Carter criticism. Citing feminist theorist Patricia Yaeger, who sees play as a tool to ‘instigate something new’ (3), Gustar proposes to find new inroads into Carter’s processes of resignification through the lens of ‘ludics and laughter’: ‘This volume’s central aim is to explore the ways in which Carter’s feminist aesthetic practice and ludic techniques have engaged in an incitement to laughter that resignifies received verities, allowing her readers a “second entry” into the world’ (3).

3However, although Gustar establishes game-theory as a starting point in her ‘Prelude’, the volume ultimately expands beyond this premise, taking the ‘and’ between ‘ludics’ and ‘laughter’ to generate critical fireworks. The concepts carnivalesque, play, games, comics, laughter, humour, parties, performance, satire, irony, and parody slip in and out of each other throughout the volume, as the terrain of ‘ludics and laughter’ is inadvertently revealed to be as unsettling as Carter’s own literary aesthetics.

4The volume opens with Gustar’s ‘Prelude’, in which she sets out the origins of the project by highlighting the manner in which ‘humour, laughter and play might work to subvert normative forms of identity and naturalized trajectories of power’ (12). Three conceptually porous sections make up the rest of the volume. Part I ‘“Carter’s Funny Bone”—Feminist laughter’ proposes four articles on the subjects of humour and laughter. Part II ‘“The Play’s the Thing”—Ludic Feminism’ groups together four articles that focus specifically on ludics. Part III: ‘“The Laugh of the Medusa”–Feminist F(r)ictions and Fusions’ proposes to explore the articulation between Cixous’s ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ and Carter’s writing. I will highlight some of the more salient features of the articles.

5Part I: Martine Hennard Dutheil de la Rochère, in ‘Angela Carter’s “Furious Laughter”: Baudelaire, Breton, Beckett’, brings her signature approach of translational and transcreative criticism to bear upon filiations of laughter in Carter’s writing as intertwined with her ‘ethos as an emancipated woman and feminist writer’ (32). Hennard’s genealogical excavations foster a deeper understanding of the productive juxtapositions and contradictions in Carter’s modes of critical creation (42). She ends with an insightful focus on how Carter taps into the disruptive potential of Surrealism’s ‘humour noir’.

6Sarah Gamble, in ‘From the Margins to the Text: Monsters and Laughter in Angela Carter’s Writing’ brings her expertise to a study of Carter’s ‘monsters’ in dialogue with the ‘hybrid, chimeric figures who frolic’ (57) in medieval texts. She explores how humor can function in both destructive and constructive manners (57), gathering a seemingly disparate corpus of texts such as Carter’s early poem ‘Unicorn’, her tale ‘Puss-in-Boots’, the early novel Shadow Dance, and later novel Nights at the Circus, to show how humour transforms ‘monsters’ into ‘agents of perilous transformation’ (73).

7Anna Bland, in ‘Angela Carter’s Funny Bone’ brings a fresh perspective to Carter’s studies with her focus on Carter’s ‘lewd and crude jokes’ (76). She studies Carter’s re-appropriation of phallocentric humour and sexual language to destabilize ‘patriarchal standards of gender, sexuality and eroticism’ (76). ‘Dick jokes’ and ‘cunt quips’ are revealed as strategic reiterations that spark potential liberation through laughter.

8Marine Furet in ‘The Indigestible Poetics of Angela Carter’ proposes a daring study of indigestion and ill health in Carter’s essays and fiction as related to dark humour. Her emphasis on Carter’s oft-quoted preoccupation with anorexia leads into a curious study of the function of bile in Carter’s treatment of ‘diseased decadent figures’ such as Baudelaire, and a provocative parallel between textual consumption and Carter’s own ‘indigestible humour’. The essay concludes with studies of food consumption and dyspepsia in two often neglected texts: Carter’s Lulu play and her late short story ‘The Ghost Ships’.

9Part II: Jennifer Gustar’s ‘Ludic Liminality: “Certain Kinds of Exuberance’’’ is the only essay that explicitly focuses on game theory. Gustar emphasizes how the ‘as if’ world of fiction acts as an intermediary realm of play that interweaves ‘our quotidian conceptualizations of the world and the worlds of the imagination’ (116). Her analysis shows how literature’s inherent playfulness is used for the serious purpose of opening ‘up to possibilities of emancipation from the ideological prison houses of patriarchy’ (118).

10Anna Watz in ‘“Scattered and Recomposed”: Postructuralist Play in The Passion of New Eve’ explores play from the primary angle of Derridian theory in articulation with The Passion of New Eve, a novel where ‘Carter’s playful method yields the most paradoxical results’ (140). Watz emphasizes how Carter’s ‘ludic method’ uses processes of resignification and reiteration to undermine ‘dualistic images’ and binaries (150) and propose a ‘philosophical meditation on gender as a semiotic process’.

11Caleb Sivyer, in ‘Nothing Immune: Ludics and Laughter in The Holy Family Album’ proposes an insightful foray into Carter’s atheism through the lens of Carter’s little studied screenplay and film, The Holy Family Album, underlining Carter’s ability to shock the reader and spectator as an essential aspect of her demythologizing strategies. Sivyer questions the image of Carter as a benevolent feminist saint and, through a close aesthetic study, proceeds to explore how the film engages with surrealist ‘black humour’, the portrayal of Christ as Entertainer, as well as materialism and religion, to ultimately highlight the dangerous edge of Carter’s feminist tactics (180).

12Maggie Tonkin proposes an original study of the party motif in ‘Terrible Intersections: The Party as Performative Space in Angela Carter’s Fiction’, showing how the spatio-temporal status of the party is reconfigured in order to ‘foreground the transcendental homelessness of the subject’. Tonkin focuses on Henri Lefebvre’s notion of affective space to move beyond the carnivalesque and reveal the political dimension of party space, ultimately underlining how Carter’s parties are ‘deliberative and highly ludic stagings of the workings of power’ (207).

13Part III: Marie Emilie Walz brings her rigor to the study of Carter’s parody in dialogue with French feminist theory in ‘Dora and Medusa Share a Laugh: Reading Angela Carter’s Wise Children as a Play on Hélène Cixous’s Feminist Theory’. Walz demonstrates how Carter’s fiction puts Cixous’s theory ‘into play’ in a manner that simultaneously expands upon and critiques its feminist reflections. She identifies key ‘Medusan’ figures in Carter’s fiction and proceeds to reveal the limits and the potential of laughter in its diverse manifestations.

14Emilie Walezak adopts a more historical angle in ‘Thatcher, the Carnivalesque and Punishing Laughter: Angela Carter and the Ambiguities of the Comic’, placing Thatcherism in dialogue with carnivalesque ludics and laughter, while also underlining the limits and dangers of the comic in Carter’s writing. This political anchoring is particularly productive in Walezak’s essay, as it incorporates a study of the self-reflexive use Carter made of carnivalesque modes to effect political change, while also examining the permeable frontier between the carnivalesque of fiction and that of the political sphere.

15The volume concludes with Katharina Donn’s ‘The Cyborg in the Tigress’ Hide: Angela Carter’s Postmodern Ecologies’. Donn studies of the ambivalence at work in Carter’s animal-human, female-bestial figures that act as ‘rich impulses for an ecofeminism ethics’ and points to an emerging trend of posthumanist approaches to rethinking gender through the deployment of fluid animal/human identities in Carter’s fiction.

16The grappling with ‘ludics and laughter’ in this volume ultimately results in an arborescence of innovative approaches, a configuration that takes root in the impetus set by Gustar, Sivyer, and Gamble, and then proceeds to extend outward, much like the laughter of Fevvers, in an unruly delving into the elusive feminist ethos that continues to be the guiding beacon of Carter criticism. One could sometimes wonder if the joke isn’t on academics; the echo of Carter’s own explosive laughter can almost be heard in the distance, as we continue to travel the myriad critical paths of her ludic labyrinths.

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Carter, Angela, Nights at the Circus, London, Penguin, 1984.

Carter, Angela, Wise Children London, Penguin, 1991.

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Michelle Ryan, « Gustar, Jennifer, Caleb Sivyer and Sarah Gamble, eds., Ludics and Laughter as Feminist Aesthetics: Angela Carter at Play »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 61 | 2021, mis en ligne le 24 octobre 2021, consulté le 25 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Michelle Ryan

Université d’Angers

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