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  • On Flinching: Theatricality and Scientific Looking from Darwin to Shell Shockby Tiffany Watt Smith
  • Philipp Erchinger (bio)
On Flinching: Theatricality and Scientific Looking from Darwin to Shell Shock, by Tiffany Watt Smith; pp. xii + 245. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, £52.00, $85.00.

Scientific looking, the topic of Tiffany Watt Smith's excellent On Flinching: Theatricality and Scientific Looking from Darwin to Shell Shock, is widely considered to be dominated, if not defined, by the ideal of a "gaze," as Michel Foucault called it, that is dispassionate and detached, registering "things as they are," rather than interfering, or going along with them in a participatory way (qtd. 5). According to Lorraine Daston's and Peter Galison's influential account, this ideal of the disinterested spectator is premised on, and constitutive of, an ethos of non-intervention and self-restraint that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as part of an increasingly professionalized culture of scientific pursuit. It was fostered, Daston and Galison argue, by new technologies of mechanical representation, such as the photograph and the sphymograph, that allowed for subjective perception to be recorded and reproduced in objective figures and forms. When looking was made into a specifically scientific act then it became disciplined in ways that dissociated the observer from the matter to be observed. Science was to be impersonal. Or, to invoke the title of George Levine's important Dying to Know(2002), not mentioned in Watt Smith's text: the investigator's self, along with its personal feelings, tastes, emotions, prejudices, and points of view, had to be so thoroughly repressed as to be virtually erased.

Drawing on practice- or performance-based approaches in sociology and theater history, Watt Smith takes issue with this view of scientific observation according to which Victorian researchers are generally assumed to look at, rather than alongside or by means of, what they come to see. To this end, On Flinchingpresents its readers with four case studies in the cultural history of the life sciences, physiology and neurobiology in particular, which took a prominent part in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century public debate. All of these studies revolve around moments in which scientific observers, their audiences, or both were manifestly startled or otherwise affected by what they tried to inspect. For cultural historians, as Watt Smith brings out, to investigate such moments is instructive because reflex motions—cringing with pain or recoiling in fright—were themselves a key subject of enquiries into the neurophysiological conditions of what, from the nineteenth century onwards, was widely described as the emotions. Thus, according to Watt Smith's book, the scientists who flinched or winced often exhibited the very feelings of pain, alarm, or disgust that they attempted to investigate. As a result, they not only exposed their research activity as "an emotional business," but also made apparent that [End Page 362]there is no scientific observation without "embodied participation" (58, 38). When scientists were startled by what they sought to observe, Watt Smith shows, their looking became noticeable as an activity that is, to some extent, caught up in its subject matter, making it appear in a particular way. This suggests that seeing is, by definition, not only seeing that, but also, if only to a small degree, " seeing as" (57).

One of Watt Smith's examples, a focal point of the first chapter, is a "self-experiment" that Charles Darwin conducted in the Reptile House of the London Zoological Gardens. Pressing his face at the "glass-plate in front of a puff-adder," Darwin was determined to remain firm when the snake darted at him, "but as soon as the blow was struck," as he recounts in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals(1872), he found himself jumping "a yard or two backwards with astonishing rapidity" (qtd. 39–40). While this incident self-avowedly "amused" the naturalist, it also meant that his looking became itself visible as a performance, watched both by himself and by the other visitors to the zoo (40). Staging an act of looking and observing himself starting back from the snake, "the eminent man of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2052
Print ISSN
0042-5222
Pages
pp. 362-364
Launched on MUSE
2017-06-16
Open Access
No
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