It seems I have a terror of an empty blog, so to kick it off, here’s a lightly edited reprint of a post I originally published in the wake of the 2008 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, where I presented a seminar paper on some of the themes we’ll address in this class. It was a theoretical piece on the relationship between discourses that shape bodies and actual lived, embodied experiences; my spoken remarks, summed up below, were a sort of recursive, meta-level rumination on why this stuff animates me. Please note that this post is also considerably longer than I expect for this blog!
Writing my seminar paper pushed me to reflect on why I was drawn to the history of the body in the first place. And as I thought about this, I realized that even as historians or other scholars write the stories of others’ embodied experiences, our own experiences remain at an Olympic height. Yet clearly those experiences are bound to affect our ideas and interpretations. So it makes sense to turn a critical gaze back upon our own experiential motivations for studying the history of the body and ask how they may reveal some systematic biases and blind spots. My guinea pig for this was the test case I know best – myself – but with the idea that my own experiences and agendas may point to some broader themes and concerns. (And yes, this is more navel-gazing than I’ve ever done in an academic venue.)
I first got interested in the history of the body in the late 1980s when I realized that it offered fresh insights into areas that were already long-standing interests of mine: sexuality, motherhood, medicine, and power. When I embarked on researching experiences of pregnancy and childbirth for my dissertation, I was very excited about two books that had just come out: Emily Martin’s The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction and Barbara Duden’s The Woman Beneath the Skin. I was fascinated by the broad range of embodied experiences that their work depicted. While they both focused almost entirely on women’s bodies and experiences, they also illuminated broader themes in the human condition, which are often though not always gendered – particularly, how power relations within a society are reflected and contested in experiences that result from the interaction of culture and biology. This basically anthropological lens was exhilarating to me both intellectually and politically; it seemed to mesh well with Foucault and feminism, which were the two main avenues for my thinking about power. To this day, I think that the project of making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange (to echo anthropologist Roy Grinker’s phrasing in Unstrange Minds) remains a powerful tool for historians of the body. …
But looking back, I can see that it wasn’t just intellectual excitement. I had other, more personal agendas in play, which I think also have a shared, generational basis. One reason the history of the body resonated with me is that it meshed with my post-hippie youth. My friends and I were ferociously hungry for all sorts of experience, much of which engaged the body. … [In] the early 1980s I knew a guy who took acid every Thursday and went wandering in California’s coastal hills; he called it his tripping day. I wasn’t anywhere near that dedicated or foolhardy about pushing the limits of embodied experience, but I did go to a lot of Grateful Dead shows …
Boiling it down to “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” might oversimplify it, and yet that not-so-holy trinity absolutely foregrounded embodied experience. Unlike earlier generations of young people, who surely took their own risks, we thought specifically about “experience” as something that was desirable, that we hungered for. … It was also an influence on some of us future historians of the body. I realize not everyone who came of age from the late 1960s through the early ‘80s had equivalent experiences, yet it was part of the Zeitgeist. Whether you embraced and pursued experience for its own sake or consciously rejected it, you could hardly avoid taking a position.
So the first question that this examination of my own “experience of experience” raises is how these sorts of experiences have shaped our research agendas in ways that we haven’t necessarily examined. Namely: Have they created a presumption that the body is somehow a privileged site for the workings of liberation and repression, freedom and social control, and can this presumption be sustained? …
My paper for the seminar argued that this is indeed the case, that the often-unexamined character of embodied experience makes such experience particularly potent. I’m generally convinced that this is true, and yet I’ll also readily admit that it’s very hard to ground this assumption. That’s why I think in the end it should be regarded as a hypothesis – one that has to be proven and re-proven empirically to fit with the available evidence, in an iterative process. (My seminar paper went into this iterative idea in more depth … and I tried to do it as well in my dissertation.) Sometimes, though, the evidence may show that in a given set of circumstances, the presumption doesn’t hold much water or obscures more than it explains.
A second area where I see my embodied experience affecting the history I write – often in ways that may remain preconscious or only dimly perceived – is through the interaction of the writing process with my own embodiment. Here, too, I don’t think I’m alone, but I’ll speak for myself and you can let me know if it makes sense. Most often, this takes form as a process of effacement of the body while writing. A relatively trivial example, one I’m sure most of you have shared, is when we try to ignore a headache or backache while in order to focus on the work. Many people deal with chronic pain and their work would come to a halt if they didn’t tune out their discomfort.
But when I do this – when I tune out my body while writing – I re-enact Cartesian dualism. Ironically, my seminar paper was in part an argument against splitting our selves into body and mind. So a second set of questions would be: How does this act of bracketing out my own body affect the kind of body history I write? Does this habit of effacement create blind spots, and if so, how do I rout them out?
But simple effacement is not the only possibility here. An example of embodied experience more specific to my own work was my changing relation to childbirth between starting and completing my dissertation. When I embarked on my project [a historical study of German women’s experiences with childbearing int he early 20th century], a number of women scholars – mothers, one and all – told me I really couldn’t write about pregnancy and childbirth without having experienced them myself. Mindful of Barbara Duden’s warning against using our bodies as a bridge to the past (and just plain ornery), I was determined to prove them wrong.
As it turned out, I had my first baby while in the midst of writing chapters on hospital birth and the emotional import of pregnancy. In my panic at the thought that I might never focus properly again, I became the queen of effacing my body. Someone might be kicking up a storm in my belly, but I tried my darnedest to ignore everything below my neck. Or so I thought.
My perspective on this changed radically when I began revising the manuscript and I realized how my own childbearing experience hadn’t necessarily created a bridge to the past, but it had thrown into question some of the present-day dogma that I’d absorbed about childbearing. For instance, the now-current notion that pregnancy is basically healthy and not pathological had blunted my empathy and understanding of the physical challenges women have [historically] faced in performing their jobs and housework while pregnant. I had to experience morning sickness and deep exhaustion for myself before I recognized my own blind spot.
My third and final question would thus be: How can we use our own embodiment to write better, more perceptive, more empathetic histories without falling prey to the assumption that our body can serve as a simple bridge? Quite possibly, this question can only be answered in specific contexts, looking at our own experiences and how they may overlap – or not – with the kinds of experiences we’re studying.
I’ve used my own experiences as a starting point here, because I didn’t want to be presumptuous. I can’t speak directly for other writers’ and scholars’ experiences. And yet, judging from audience reaction at the seminar, I don’t think either my experiences or their implications are limited to me.
Similarly, I’ve laid out these thoughts from a historian’s perspective, but I think they may apply to at least some aspects of blogging [as well as other forms of creative writing, including literary nonfiction, and many genres of academic writing]. Most of us … deal with personal experiences in one form or another. Sometimes those experiences are our own; sometimes they belong to other people; sometimes they’re shared property, so to speak. What sorts of assumptions about experience are lurking in the background [when we write] about experiential stuff?
If you’ve stuck with me through all of this, I’d love to hear if any of these thoughts resonated with you.