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Prosthetic Laughter

Feeling Disability 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.

The project extrapolates a theory and methodology from the Renaissance originally referred to as energia by Aristotle in the Metaphysics. Recirculated in Philip Sidney’s 1595 Defense of Poesy as “forcibleness,” the term remains difficult to pin down and scholarly attempts to do so are as capacious as they are ambiguous: the force that makes animate that which is inanimate; social energy; the spirit of vitality; activity or motion; capacity and potentiality; the liveliness of expression. In wrestling with this considerable, conceptual history, my dissertation uncovers an aesthetic concept of energia built on the correspondence of incongruent things. “Prosthetic Laughter” argues that the incongruency which motivates the poetic and rhetorical project of energia is patterned after encounters with disability, events marked emphatically by sundered, or otherwise thwarted, expectations of bodies and minds. In other words, energia’s potency is realized through a blueprint of difference. My project focuses on the affective experience of laughter and the augmented technology of prosthesis to bring forward the interconnection between energia as a method of creativity and its potential for shared feeling. 

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