'History of Science, Medicine, and Technology' Seminar

'“We cannot help laughing”: reflex, discomfort, and the comic in late-Victorian mental science'

Cora Salkovskis (Birkbeck University of London)

Laughter sits uneasily within the history of mental health and the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century British asylum; a space more commonly associated with pain and distress than humour and the comic. Finding, thinking about, and writing about laughter in this space and context raises important questions of methodology, meaning, ethics, and practice. How can laughter be found in asylum records or translated into text? Does laughter always neatly map onto emotion or humour, and when the doctor (or the historian) does find something funny, what does it mean to laugh?

Using the extraordinary (and newly discovered) transcribed interviews of patients in Richmond Asylum (Dublin) and contemporary medical and lay texts, this paper explores the curiosity and ambivalence with which the laughter of both doctors and patients was viewed and experienced in the physical and conceptual spaces of mental science. Laughter is explored as an expressive, disruptive, and creative phenomenon; a complex constellation of movements often ambiguously situated between reflex or automatic action, emotion, and social practice. This paper unpicks what role the familiarity and recognisability of embodied expression in how we relate to other human beings, asking why laughter is more uncomfortable or unexpected in some places than others.

The seminar in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology is convened by Alex Aylward (University of Oxford), Erica Charters (Wolfson College), Mark Harrison (University of Oxford), Catherine Jackson (Harris Manchester College), and Sloan Mahone (University of Oxford).