‘On Flinching: Theatricality and Scientific Looking from Darwin to Shell Shock’ reviewed by Dr Beatriz Pichel

‘On Flinching: Theatricality and Scientific Looking from Darwin to Shell Shock’ by Tiffany Watt Smith (Oxford University Press, 2014)

flinchingFlinches, starts and winces do have a history, and, as Dr. Tiffany Watt Smith shows, this is a made of gestures but also of gazes and self-reflection. Watt Smith proposes to understand flinches from a ‘double perspective’ in which the person flinching not only see themselves as someone looking, but as someone who is watched too by herself and the others (p. 10). Therefore, flinching can be considered as an embodied gaze, that is, a way of looking (outwardly and inwardly) that involves the whole body. This characterization of flinches, starts and winces allows the author to relate two fields apparently disconnected, the theatre and the sciences. According to Watt Smith, it was precisely this abovementioned kind of embodied looking what was performed both by Victorian audiences in the theatre and some scientists in the laboratory between 1872 and 1918. By means of a close examination of particular instances, flinches and starts become the starting point for a deep reflection on how scientific and theatrical practices of looking intersected in the long nineteenth century.

The main idea of the book, that the history of flinching is the story of practical exchanges of knowledge about sensations and the body, is an innovative historical claim that has broader historiographical and theoretical consequences. In this regard, as Watt Smith herself points out, the four case studies explored in this book contribute to rethink the ideal of mechanical objectivity described by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison (1992, 2007) in the context of local practices (p. 5). Furthermore, what I have found more appealing is the structure of the book and the way in which she develops her arguments. The main problem was to show the connections between scientists, theatregoers and actors when there are no traces of straightforward or acknowledged influences. The challenge of On Flinching is to demonstrate that some practices of looking were effectively shared in different and even opposite spaces at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, and that the circulation of these practices made the transference of knowledge between fields possible. With this aim, the strategy of the book has been to depart from one particular flinch in the scientific context, and then alternating the development and analysis of this story with the description of spectatorship practices in the theatre. The result is mostly convincing.

In the first chapter, Watt Smith takes as a departure point an anecdote recounted by Darwin in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). The British naturalist relates that he was at the zoo observing a snake through a glass, and when the snake struck at him he ‘jumped a yard or two backwards with astonishing rapidity’ (pp. 39-40), even if he was resolute not to startle. This action and particularly the way in which it was introduced as an example for Darwin’s theory of emotions, mirrored theatrical practices. In particular, this flinch recalled other theatrical flinches and the slippage of the actor, who had to perform emotional expressions while being aware all the time of ‘every detail of his method’ (p. 64). But, as Watt Smith shows, this double consciousness was also common among the theatre spectators, who ‘simultaneously experienced emotions and monitored them too’ (p. 67). In conclusion, this chapter defends the notion that this technique of self-observation practiced by the Victorian audience became essential not only for the development of Darwin’s theory, but also for the readers’ response to the Expression.

The second chapter, “Monkey F Startled”, focuses on the brain experiments carried out on monkeys by the neurologist David Ferrier in the 1880s. Ferrier aimed to prove that particular parts of the brain were in charge of specific functions such as language or vision. With this purpose, he operated on a monkey’s brain, cauterizing the parts associated with the ability to hear. In order to demonstrate that the monkey had gone deaf, Ferrier approached it from behind in order not to be seen, and suddenly made a Provocative and startling noise, causing everyone to flinch except for the monkey. Ferrier’s attitude is in line with the precept of “self-restraint” promoted by the ideal of mechanical objectivity in the scientific practice but also, as Watt Smith shows, the effort of the audiences in realistic theatre pretending not to be there in order not to interfere with the stage (pp. 108-109).

Chapter 3 examines the experiment that the neurologist and psychologist Henri Head performed on himself in the early 20th century. Head underwent an operation that damaged the radial nerve of his left arm with the purpose of analyzing the sensibility to pain in the recovery of this kind of nerves. For Head, this analysis could only be done by ‘a few particularly cultivated people’ who ‘possessed the ability to fully appreciate the sensory world in its rich complexity’ (p. 130). This ‘negative attitude of attention’ developed by Head in his self-experiments was similar, Watt Smith argues, to spectators’ states of concentration on what was happening on the stage. In both cases, the state of attention could be suddenly interrupted by noises made by other people – whether Head’s colleagues or other spectators in the theatre. As in the previous chapter, this negative attitude of attention was understood as a strategy for objective looking (p. 138), becoming a local practice of objectivity (p. 162).

Finally, the last case study, ‘A Convalescent Recoils’, focuses on the medical film War Neuroses (1917-1918), made at the Netley (Hampshire) and Seale Hayne (Devon) Military Hospitals by the physician Arthur Hurst, and currently preserved at the Wellcome Library in London. Several theatrical techniques converged in this film. On the one hand, not only were neuroses considered as the result of a ‘regressed compulsion to imitate’ (p. 169), but also the staging of recovering men performing flinches and recoils was part of Hurst’s therapy. Precisely because of their alleged imitative nature, war neuroses’ treatment was based on persuasion, in this case materialized on the optimistic performances of recovery in front of the camera (p. 181). On the other hand, the spectators of the film also played a part, as the patients were ‘first and foremost audience members rather than actors’ (p. 194). This was important because Hurst believed that the enjoyable vision of the symptoms could help to recover, or at least to open the possibility of recovery. This is why, for example, some scenes of the film recalled routines of the music hall. Watt Smith concludes her analysis arguing that the current spectator of the film can feel uncomfortable, as her winces and flinches would reproduced the intended logic of the film.

Across all these chapters, the similarity in the scientists’ and spectators’ strategies and practices of looking are evident. However, the focus on local practices is interesting as it is tricky. Perhaps additional examples of scientists using this kind of observational practices in the laboratory would have created a stronger sense of their local rather than individual character. In any case, On Flinching is a good book that will be of interest primarily to historians of science (and particularly physiology), historians of emotions and historians of theatre in the long nineteenth century. However, academics interested in visual culture and the history of the body will also find valuables examples along this book. Finally, Watt Smith’s emphasis on the similarities between nineteenth-century practices of looking and contemporary concerns about the active or passive role of spectators makes this book appealing to a broader audience interested in the performative arts. In fact, as the final pages of the last chapter suggest, the ultimate goal of the historical analyses carried out in this book seems to be to contribute to think about current affective responses that involve an embodied looking (inwards and outwards).


Reviewed by Dr Beatriz Pichel, a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the Photographic History Research Centre, de Montfort University (Leicester, UK). Her current research project, at the crossroad of history of photography, history of emotions and medical humanities, examines the role of photographic practices in the understanding of emotions by the emerging psychology and the theatre at the turn of the 19th century.

Correspondence to Dr Beatriz Pichel


Works referenced:

Daston, Lorraine and Galison, Peter, “The Image of Objectivity”, Representations, Vol. 0, Issue 40, Special Volume Seeing Science (Autumn 1992), 81-128.

Daston, Lorraine and Galison, Peter, Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007)



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