Humanities at Large

JHI Alumni Spotlight—Maggie Hennefeld

Submitted by Sonja Johnston on March 19 2021.
JHI Alumni Spotlight features past Fellows and their current work

Maggie Hennefeld is Associate Professor of Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature and McKnight Presidential Fellow at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her research focuses on comedy, feminist theory, and silent film history.

She is author of the award-winning book, Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes (Columbia UP, 2018), co-editor of the journal Cultural Critique, and co-editor of two volumes: Unwatchable (Rutgers UP, 2019) and Abjection Incorporated: Mediating the Politics of Pleasure and Violence (Duke UP, 2020). She is currently co-curating a DVD/Blu-ray set on “Cinema’s First Nasty Women” and writing a book about the history of women who allegedly died from laughing too hard.

Maggie was an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in 2014-2015 during our Humour, Play, and Games theme year. She provides an overview of the project she worked on while at the JHI and shares what her fellowship experience was like. She also updates us about her current work and articulates why she thinks the humanities are important.

Project While at the JHI

I was finishing my book about slapstick comediennes in early silent cinema, Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes. I also started a new project that year, “Death from Laughter, Female Hysteria, and Early Cinema.” I remember sitting in my office at the JHI searching for material on how women laughed at the movies in the early 1900s. I came across a very bizarre obituary, “Killed By a Joke!,” which alleged that a young woman had died from laughing too hard at a funny joke that her fiancé told her. I was puzzled but intrigued and found many more of these obituaries; they’re now the spine of my second book, which explores the history of women’s laughter and its relation to female hysteria from the mid-19th century to the emergence of filmgoing as a dominant form of entertainment culture in the early twentieth century. I focus on the spaces and extremes of women’s embodied pleasure, and how the fuzzy line between female hysteria and female enjoyment was repeatedly threatened and redrawn during that period.

The JHI Experience

It was phenomenal. It was a very tight-knit community of fellows and a cohesive, stimulating set of conversations. The theme that year was “Humor, Play, and Games,” and we were all working on some aspects of those keywords but from very different vantage points. Fellows’ projects spanned Ancient Greek histories of humor, medieval experiments in religious laughter, early modern embodied play and laughing tonalities of song, modernist movements such as Vorticism and Dadaism, literary humor of existential imprisonment, and contemporary video games. We were all working on different objects but became communally invested in thinking through the same questions. For example, I remember wondering about the precise relation between laughter and hysteria in Ancient Greek poetry, and my friend Matt Cohn (a Classics professor who was also a postdoctoral fellow at JHI) responded immediately with an original translation of a relevant passage from The Odyssey. That kind of exchange happened all the time; it was magical. We were thinking together and leading a collaborative life of the mind.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of that intellectual community. We each presented our projects at Thursday lunchtime meetings. We’d anticipate and support our friends’ and colleagues’ presentations with great excitement and then have energetic Q&As and continued discussion well into the afternoon. Everyone worked in their office at the JHI. For example, I’d hit a wall with writing, go to the kitchen to make a coffee, and end up chatting for hours about a question (whether directly or abstractly related) that helped me push through that wall. We organized reading groups together, we had dinner parties, we went on field trips (to comedy clubs, opera performances, film screenings, book readings, etc.), and really became like a family. I am still in touch with my JHI colleagues from that year. Those interactions were formative to my identity and commitments as a scholar. They revealed to me the necessity of community and power of interdisciplinary thought.

Current Work

I am still working on the project that I started at JHI, Death from Laughter, Female Hysteria, and Early Cinema, which will be my second monograph. I’m hoping to finish the manuscript by the end of the year. I’m always amazed by how particularly the project took shape—it has 3 sections (laughter + hysteria + early cinema), each 3 chapters, and also an introduction and conclusion. I see the formations of how the book is organized in the trajectory of my research and thinking during that JHI postdoc year. As a community, we were always wrestling with the triad of HUMOR, PLAY, AND GAMES—for example, how comedic enjoyment is mediated in its many social and aesthetic possibilities by unrevealed historical structures. The JHI also supported me in programming a silent film screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox that year in collaboration with a new faculty member at Carleton University in Ottawa, Laura Horak. That screening has now ballooned into a 4-disc DVD/Blu-ray set on “Cinema’s First Nasty Women”, which will be out with Kino Lorber in 2022.

Importance of the Humanities

The humanities are not just important: they’re essential. They allow us to think creatively, to understand social and political crises outside of their immediate contexts, and to pursue alternative possibilities for justice and belonging. In an economy that demands our relentless productivity and constantly fragmented attention, the humanities foster non-instrumental ways of thinking and spaces for truly focused concentration. I worry about the rampant defunding of the humanities—austerity budget cuts to liberal arts programs, accumulation of unpayable student debt, and the repeated non-replacement of faculty tenure lines. As foreboding as the future appears amid this pandemic, it will be immeasurably worse without a major reinvestment of funding and resources in the public humanities.

Humanities Institutes and Higher Education

The JHI is an incredible resource and a truly special place. We need more JHIs and need to democratize access to them as much as possible. Everyone in higher ed should have the opportunity to participate. In my year, I appreciated that the fellowship experience was open to undergrads, grad students, postdocs, and faculty fellows. That intergenerational dynamic is part of what made our conversations feel so alive. I’ve participated in similar fellowship communities at the Pembroke Center at Brown University in grad school and here at the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota (as a faculty fellow). But many humanities centers are being defunded, especially at public universities that have fewer private resources or smaller humanities endowments. It’s a tragedy. In a utopian future, there would be a cornucopia of JHIs across higher ed—on a diverse range of topics (from teaching to social justice to intermedial art) and they would be broadly inclusive spaces: both havens for the fellows and open to the wider community.

I also wanted to mention how generative it was to teach in a host department, where I was also paired with a mentor. I taught a year-long course on feminist film theory in Cinema Studies. Charlie Keil was my mentor. I was able to connect with many of the incredible faculty and students in CSI and access the rich film culture in Toronto. JHI was proactive about facilitating and fostering those relationships between fellows at the Institute and humanities departments in the University.

I appreciate the online lectures, screenings, and programming the JHI has been hosting throughout the pandemic. I’m looking forward to participating in a virtual symposium on “Collectives & Collectivity” in April, though of course wish I could be there in person!