Prosthetic Laughter

Feeling Disabled Performance in Early Modern England

My dissertation surveys disability representation and performance in early modern England in light of two affective happenings: laughter and wonder. While generally there are four clearly demarcated theories of laughter (The Superiority Theory, The Relief Theory, The Incongruity Theory, and Humor as Play), my project proposes we restore the affect of “wonder” to the conversation. To be sure, “wonder” hides in theories of incongruity and, to a lesser extent, theories of relief/release, but I am suggesting a rejoining of these two affective phenomena which takes seriously an otherwise hammy observation by Barry Sanders: “[L]aughter,” he writes, “has the power to remove a person altogether, by lifting him or her straight up.” The moral and ethical implications of one being “lifted upwards” in a fit of laughter is no accident, nor is it coincidence that in the eighteenth-century Adam Smith described the experience of “wonder” in similar terms: “that staring, and sometimes rolling of the eyes, that suspension of the breath, and that swelling of the heart.” What many philosophers and some poets—like Philip Sidney, for example—appear to ignore is laughter’s potential for reparation and that old census communis. If this is to suggest rehabilitation of a sort, it’s not corrective or penalizing. “Folly,” Erasmus writes, “is concerned in a playful spirit… [and] my purpose was guidance and not satire; to help, not to hurt… not only to cure [men], but to amuse them, too.” Taken this way, my dissertation asserts a model of laughter that is more sense than reason. Although we are interested in two different species of humorous response, Kant’s observation of laughter as “an affectation arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing” expresses the same wonderfully downward movement of the carnivalesque.  What, for example, does one feel when “well-mannered” gestures crack and crumble, and all that posture and countenance—the sure-footed gait of nobilitas—fumbles into nothing? Though short it may be, the feeling flashes, simultaneously arresting and releasing us. It might appear I’ve caught myself in a contradiction, positioning laughter as a movement both upward and downward. All the better, for performance and laughter and dis/ability are inconstant types, and—like the chameleon—might look left, right, up, and down all at once. So, too, like the humours, they’re categorically leaky, fluid, and ambiguous.

To put a more fine point on it, this model of laughter corresponds to what has be called “the common sense,” which, as I intend to articulate in my dissertation, is wrought on the anvil of evolutionary biology by the hammering of diverse, historical sense(s) of humor, and thus shapely flattened in the intuitive design of communal affection.


From a methodological standpoint, I draw on performance studies, historical reconstruction, neuroscience, and the history of emotions to intervene in still-burgeoning discussions around disability in pre and early modern contexts. In an attempt to wrangle these disparate but allied fields, "Prosthetic Laughter" depends upon a reintroduction of energia into cirtical discourse, not simply as a mark on the historical record, nor as rhetorical technique, but as a methodology of affect. I look to play-texts, manuscripts, legal documents, medical and religious treatises, pamphlets, broadsides, songs, and other archival materials to conjure up an inquiry which centers and takes seriously sensation and feeling.