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Title page for ETD etd-07222011-140243

Type of Document Dissertation
Author McColl, Kimberly M
URN etd-07222011-140243
Title "'Something Mechanical Encrusted on the Living': Modernity, Embodiment, and Empathy in American Slapstick Film, 1895–1929"
Degree PhD
Department English
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Paul D. Young Committee Chair
Ben Singer Committee Member
Mark Wollaeger Committee Member
Rachel Teukolsky Committee Member
  • embodiment
  • slapstick
  • empathy
  • modernity
  • film
Date of Defense 2011-07-23
Availability unrestricted
This dissertation argues that slapstick film’s conventions, including the gag, humiliation and violence, and comic business, produce the screen figure body-object, which operates as the substrate and the cause of slapstick. Slapstick creates body-objects that are passive, inept and failing, or active and successful. I contend that industrial and economic modernization in the United States increased the need for perceptual learning, a process through which the subject develops the ability to process new percepts, creating a new sensorium that responds to modernity’s pressures through new attentional abilities. Slapstick models how attention should be allocated both inside and outside the exhibition space. The slapstick viewer is not a spectator because to be a spectator is to be isolated and silent, whereas the slapstick viewer participates in a collective viewing position. Slapstick reception focuses on the viewer’s body because slapstick film generates laughter, a bodily response that connects the individual viewer to other viewers within the exhibition space, with the screen figure as the pivot. Slapstick evokes four kinds of laughter: superior laughter, the laughter of analogy and recognition, laughter resulting from incongruity, and laughter resulting from release of tension. Viewers feel empathy toward each other though a direct encounter with the other. They also feel empathy both toward the screen figure that exhibits pain and humiliation and toward the screen figure playing the gag, a kind of empathy that involves mirror neurons, which fire both when a subject commits an action and when the subject sees that action committed. Finally, they experience empathy toward the film as an art form with which they cooperate to produce meaning.
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