- On Flinching: Theatricality and Scientific Looking from Darwin to Shell Shock by Tiffany Watt Smith
In the early 1870s, Charles Darwin performed a self-experiment in the Reptile House at the London Zoological Gardens. In order to test the automaticity of human fear reactions, he put his face close to the glass wall of the puff-adder cage and steeled himself not to react if the snake struck at him. As the famous naturalist later recounted, his resolution “went for nothing” and he “jumped a yard or two back” when the puff-adder eventually did strike. He was, he wrote, amused by his reaction.
The reflexivity of Darwin’s flinch may seem removed from the artifice and self-consciousness we associate with theatre. But as Tiffany Watt Smith demonstrates in her fascinating, imaginatively researched book On Flinching: Theatricality and Scientific Looking from Darwin to Shell Shock, the act of flinching is intricately caught up in cultural modes of performance and spectatorship. Darwin’s self-experiment was, after all, staged, and he was an attentive audience of his own performance. As the longstanding association of flinching with treachery attests, flinching could be performed for self-serving purposes, as in the case of a nineteenth-century man who faked a railway injury as part of an insurance claim.
It was also a conventional stage gesture used to indicate fear, surprise, or recognition: Henry Irving, for one, was renowned for his spectacular starts and recoils. The theatricality of this apparently involuntary behavior was particularly at issue, Smith argues, in the late nineteenth century, a period when the body’s flinches made prominent appearances in the spheres of scientific experimentation and theatre. While the nineteenth century is widely considered an age of scientific objectivity and detached observation, “spaces of scientific investigation continued to witness passionate and gestured acts of looking, in which observers flinched from sudden noises, winced at the sight of an animal’s pain, and recoiled from being seen. It was in these moments of embodied and performed looking that the scientific observer’s entanglements in the techniques and problems of theatrical audiences came to the foreground” (37–38).
Smith illustrates the connections between scientific observation and theatrical spectatorship by examining four scientific experiments conducted during the years 1872 to 1917. Chapter 1 extends her analysis of Darwin’s self-experiment in the Reptile House to his subsequent treatise, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). This book’s numerous illustrations of staged emotional expression, and its instructions on how readers could produce these expressions themselves, call attention to emotional reactions as performances. Smith compares Darwin’s emphasis on emotional performance to the contemporary vogue for “sensation theatre” in which spectators enjoyed their collective reactions to technologically thrilling stage climaxes. Chapter 2 considers Scottish neurologist David Ferrier’s 1881–82 experiments in which he tried to make monkeys flinch in order to prove that a specific area of the brain was responsible for hearing. In an 1881 demonstration before a gathering of noted physicians, Ferrier crept up behind two monkeys, including one (known as “Monkey F”) whose auditory cortex had been surgically destroyed. When Ferrier, acting like a stage villain in contemporary melodrama, fired a pistol he was carrying, everyone in the room jumped except Monkey F, thereby proving the neurologist’s hypothesis. Working with Ferrier’s notebooks, Smith recounts the difficulty he faced over the course of his research in determining whether the monkey’s reactions were genuine flinches and the game of concealment he had to play in order to ensure that its responses were not a response to seeing him. Smith compares Ferrier’s attempts to hide from the experimental scene in front of him to theatrical naturalism’s attempt to conceal the spectator from the stage’s action behind an imaginary fourth wall.
Chapter 3 examines an experiment in nerve regeneration that neurologist Henry Head conducted with psychologist W. H. R. Rivers during 1903–07. After undergoing an operation that severed the radial nerve of his left...