At the 68th Golden Globe Awards, a visibly pregnant Natalie Portman ascended the stage to collect the Best Actress award for her work in the psychological drama Black Swan. Her earnest three minute speech is standard Hollywood fare; she thanks her grandparents, her parents, her manager, her co-stars, and her director. She touches her stomach and thanks her fiancé, the choreographer and actor Benjamin Millepied. She tells a bad joke about how Millepied, who has a small role in Black Swan as a man sexually disinterested in Portman's character, must be a brilliant actor because of course he really did want to sleep with her, as evidenced by her swelling belly. The audience laughs by rote; they are used to these carefully constructed asides designed to provide light comic relief from the otherwise relentlessly repetitive slew of near-identical speeches. What Portman does next, however, is jarringly off-script. She laughs. Her laugh erupts in two monotone bursts and lasts for four seconds. Within days, her laugh hits the Internet as a looped video, where it will take on a life of its own.
The original Portman laugh-loop was generated by comedy website and meme manufacturer CollegeHumor, and boasts a YouTube view-count of 2.25 million, literally double that of Portman's official acceptance speech. The video retains her bad joke, presumably to provide context, and then loops for a straight thirty seconds, interspersing images of Portman's laughing body with cut-away shots to the increasingly bemused faces of celebrity onlookers. The audio clip of Portman's double-burst of laughter is repeated nine times, and the video clip of her laughing is repeated five times. A cursory search reveals a host of alternate versions, including a "super-cut" that extends the loop for an almost unbearable three minutes, a video comparison with Miley Cyrus' laughter ("which laugh grates on your ears less?"), and countless remixes with various accompanying sound-effects, from generic house music to the artistically moribund "Farting Edition."
Fan fascination with the Portman video is representative of a more general online obsession with making laugh-loops, which appear all over the Internet primarily in animated GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) form. An animated gif is a short sequence of images sliced from their original context, usually programmed to loop ad infinitum, or at least until you close your browser. A truly democratic animal that lives and dies by its rebloggability, the GIF is popular because of its simplicity and portability - they are easy to make and even easier to spread.
But why is the laugh-loop in particular such a popular variety of GIF? A quick scan of the vast array of laugh-loop GIFs show that the laughter chosen for looping has no single identifiable quality. Some are contagious and pleasurable to listen to, but some are uncomfortable and jarring to the ear. Many don't include an audio track at all, featuring only the mute face crumpling in silent spasms that we infer to be laughter. Most noticeable, however, is the variety of subjects doing the laughing in laugh-loops. Natalie Portman, Michael Jordan, and Brendan Fraser star in very popular laugh-loops. However, equally prevalent are laugh-loop GIFs that feature non-celebrities, children, cartoon characters, puppets, and animals.
Aristotle called laughter an "ensouling mechanism," and the academic discipline of humor studies has built itself upon the assumption that laughter is a quintessentially human response to the socio-cultural discourse of humor. Laughter is offered as proof of our exceptional status as thinking social creatures; we are "the only animal that laughs." GIFs that feature sniggering squirrels, cackling cartoon toasters, and rollicking robots would seem to undermine this selfish view of laughter as an exclusively human activity. But even worse, the laugh-loop GIF disassociates laughter from humor. By severing laughter from the context that incites it, the laugh-loop GIF reveals that laughter is not only a consequence of its sociocultural coordinates, but also a weird object in itself. Laughter, it seems, is not 'for us' but has its own alien being that has hitherto been masked by its everydayness.
The glitch aesthetic of the GIF emphasizes the uncanny quality of laughter. At each moment of re-looping, Portman performs a miniature convulsion that registers as an inhuman twitch. If humor makes us human -- an assumed correlation that is so deeply written into our culture that the two share a basic etymological root -- then laughter without humor appears to render us mechanical, terrifying, monstrous. It is not a coincidence that laughter without humor has become the great cinematic signifier of madness: think of Colin Clive's maniacal "it's alive!" hysterics in the famous 1931 film version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or the crazed cackle of The Joker in the Batman comics.
Laughter without humor seems pathological because it cannot be rationalized. Without the Millepied joke as context, Portman's laughter literally becomes unintelligible to us. The laugh-loop GIF replaces humor studies' anthropocentric question -- what is funny to us? -- with a more basic one: what is laughter? The laughter of the laugh-loop GIF is both infinite and inexplicable, it erupts over and over again, without reason and without end. In the same way that repeating a common word over and over suddenly renders it strange, the repetitious format of the laugh-loop GIF defamiliarizes laughter and forces us to confront it as such, in all its irrational strangeness.
To test the impact of this confrontation, I watched the Portman laugh-loop video and its variations on repeat for about two hours. After twenty minutes of this oddly oppressive process, an uncanny sensation takes hold. Before my eyes, Natalie Portman -- bad joke-teller, acclaimed actor, pregnant female, human being -- begins to recede behind the blank, insistent laughter that pours out of her. Portman ceases to be recognizable according to ordinary human parameters; she is only a glitching body and a flat, repetitious tone. In this moment it is no longer "Natalie Portman's laughter" that reverberates out of my tinny laptop speakers, but simply "laughter": a material force unbound by the taxonomies of humor, and the limitations of the human.
In a neat materialization of this otherwise nebulous sensation, further investigation reveals that Portman's laughter has its very own Facebook page, an online presence utterly divorced from the actress herself. In the vast multitude of laugh-loop GIFs that feature non-celebrities, the uncanny erasure of the person laughing is even more obvious. Perhaps Portman, as an instantly recognizable face and household name, better resists the ontologically disruptive power of laughter. When we watch the immensely popular "fat kid laughing" gif, for example, no one cares who he is, or where he is from, or why he is laughing, or who is filming him laugh. It doesn't occur to us to ask. The subject of the video is not the fat kid, but the laughter itself. It is all we can see.
By separating laughter from humor, the laugh-loop GIF allows us to see laughter on its own, separate from the activities of human affect that produce it. Laughing as a noun rather than a verb. The material qualities of the GIF -- in particular its repetitious and glitchy nature -- accentuates the strangeness of laughter. The ordinariness of laughter makes this strangeness hard to see, obscured in fleshy domesticity.
The FIF is not alone in its capacity to reveal laughter without humor. Think of the brutal Italian giallo filmThe House With Laughing Windows (1976), the practice of Hasyayoga orLaughter Yoga, theTanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962, the irrepressibly popularTickle Me Elmo doll, or the canned laughter of theLaff Box on the 1950's sitcom The Hank McCune Show. Normally we see laughter as an effect of humor and an affect of the human. We think we can explain laughter by comedic analysis (why Portman's joke is funny) or statistical analysis (how canned laughter affects an audience). But thinking about laughter as an entity rather than an activity allows us to recognize its strangeness. Pure laughter refuses rational explanation. It is this unintelligibility that caused Thomas Hobbes to call laughter "that passion without a name." It is why attempts to represent laughter in language feel reductive to the point of absurdity (representations such as "LOL!" or even "ha-ha" don't quite cut it).
Thinking about laughter as an intellectually inaccessible object troubles the scientist, who cannot make its essential properties transparent. But just because something withdraws from rational explanation or human intelligibility does not mean it has no intellectual traction. The dilation of perspective from human humor to alien laughter opens up a new space in which laughter ceases to prove our humanity or to reinforce our rationality. Instead, it disrupts these anthropocentric presumptions. Laughter without humor offers the deeply disturbing but potentially liberating effect of showing us laughter itself, laughter as such. For a moment that the GIF form makes eternal, Natalie Portman is no longer a self-contained and self-possessed human woman. She is a medium for laughter, like linseed oil is a medium for pigment.
In the strange moment of laughter, the clean divisions between objects, subjects, things, humans, and animals become muddied. Out of these muddy waters, an uncertain terrain emerges in which, for a laughing moment, Natalie Portman becomes a glitching machine, Elmo becomes a corporeal presence, an inanimate house becomes a vengeful killer, the Tanganyika people become a single body, a tape of recorded laughter remotely activates armchair laughter, and a laughter that began as a choreographed exercise routine becomes involuntary and spontaneous. Laughter allows us to gaze at a spasming actress and a hysterical toy and a psychotic house and a chuckling magnetic tape and see them all surge toward one another along a shared axis. Contaminated by a fugitive and inexplicable laughter, the old philosophical taxonomies cannot hold. Secretly, we always suspected that laughter held this disruptive quality. This is why we call it cracking or bursting or breaking up. This is why when we laugh we are no longer an individual, coherent self but a multitudinous bundle or barrel of laughs. Laughter without humor shows us that laughter persists, even without us.