Feeling flesh: pain, emotion and the self in the understanding of insanity’s tortured bodies and fractured minds, c1880-1930

Year of award: 2017


  • Cora Salkovskis

    Birkbeck, University of London

Project summary

This study draws attention to the ambiguities and conflicts surrounding embodiment and pain in the late-19th and early-20th century understanding of the experience of ‘insanity’. Engaging with concepts of embodied cognition, the history of emotion and phenomenology, I will consider the relationship between the body, culture and language in the experience and construction of disorder. Deconstructing boundaries drawn around the ‘shell-shocked body’ in historical discourse draws attention to the ambiguous but shifting position occupied by the hypersensitive, uncontrollable or pained body to reveal the experience of mental illness as shaped by a complex interaction of body, language and culture.

Resistant reading of patients’ case notes and published treatises on insanity will be used in conjunction with a consideration of representations of the ‘insane body’ in the visual arts (including photography and film).

Arguing for a biopsychosocial approach to mental health, I will emphasise the importance of historicising the ways in which the experience of ‘disorder’ is filtered through textual and visual discourse, asking how patients have communicated sensation and considering  the ways in which doctors have sought to record or understand it.