Saturday, April 19, 2008

Bodies in the Flow of Time

Yesterday I dragged one of figleaf's comment threads off topic, and while he was gracious about it (as always), it made me realize this is why I have my own soapbox: so I can bellyache about obscure issues like ahistorical history and its exclusion of our embodied selves.

One of the very first things that new history grad students learn is to beware ahistoricism. You can't impose our present values, ideas, obsessions, and worries on the past. Now, it's fine to let your questions about the past be inspired by your present-day concerns. In fact, if your research doesn't somehow connect up to things you care about today, I have no clue how you sustain interest over years of thesis-writing. But once you've got a topic and a set of questions, you have an obligation to look at your sources with as jaded an eye as possible and to be alert to their strangeness and otherness.

Here's a hypothetical example of how that might work. Let's say I set out to recover the voices of women within a particular social movement and show how they assumed leadership roles. But once I get into the archives, I begin to see that the movement had been overwhelmingly led by men, even though women did much of the footwork. I can still look for women's voices, and I can perhaps show how their ideas represented a valuable path not taken. But I'd be a fool to try to insert them into leadership positions if that doesn't match the evidence. I'd be similarly foolish to simply say, "See? Sexism kept these women down back then just like it does today!" Sure, sexism would have been at the root of their frustrations. But if I'm a smart historian, I'll try to dissect just how sexism operated and - crucially - I'll look for ways in which this differed from how sexism works today. With luck, I might then discover a new insight or two about the workings of gender in the past, and indirectly, that might have implications for today. Or it might not.

Most historians, as a result of their graduate training, are pretty careful about this. But there's been one glaring blind spot, history's understanding of the body. Up until the late 1980s, historians generally regarded the human body and our embodied experiences as outside the purview of history. Bodies are biological, right? We're born, we eat, we reproduce, we die. Or so went the dominant and usually unspoken assumption. Even the history of medicine long concentrated on the deeds of Great Men, rather than exploring how embodiment might have changed over the years. Starting in the 1970s, social historians of medicine began to ask not just why people now live longer than in the past, or why TB is no longer such a scourge, but how these changes matter to ordinary people's lives.

By the late 1980s, in response to the new social histories of medicine and feminism's focus on bodies, historians were starting to explore how people might have experienced their bodies differently in the past. For me, the book that transformed how I thought about not just history but about being human was Barbara Duden's The Woman Beneath the Skin: A Doctor's Patients in Eighteenth-Century Germany. Duden describes a world where people experienced their bodies as much more permeable to the outside world, where the boundary between self and not-self was much blurrier than we understand it to be. This is the kind of insight that Duden could never have achieved if she'd just mirrored feminist concerns of the day and set out to show how women lost power as doctors' authority grew (though she's certainly argued that elsewhere, in more nuanced ways than most).

So that's the kind of sensitivity to difference and otherness that I hope to emulate in my own research on past forms of embodied experience. In thinking and writing about the history of childbirth, I could paint the doctors as bad guys; there are plenty of examples of sloppy and sexist medicine, which I might trot out another day when I'm in an ornerier mood. But if I describe a medical conspiracy to wrest birth away from women, I miss out on the ways in which women exercised choice and agency, including how they deliberately invited doctors' involvement in the delivery room to enhance their own safety. If I uncritically transport current arguments about the naturalness and inherent safety of birth into the past, I'll overlook the fact that a century ago, women in today's rich countries faced roughly a five percent lifetime risk of dying from complications of childbirth. And if I assume that my experiences with pregnancy explain much about those of women a century ago, I might ignore the elemental fact that unlike us, who can pee on a stick and see the thin blue line appear, throughout most of history pregnancy was so couched with uncertainty that a woman couldn't even be sure she was pregnant, as opposed to suffering a menstrual disturbance, an imbalance of hot and cold, or even the evil eye.

These aren't examples that directly feed into political work on choices in childbirth, say, or access to abortion. But indirectly, if we're willing to listen to their unfamiliarity, they might shake our smug assumption that our reproductive politics and institutions are quasi-natural or the best of all possible worlds. They might inspire appreciation and even awe for the vast variety of human experience. And this sort of history can play a small part, I think, toward redressing what Kochanie described in comments a few days ago as "our culture's devaluing of the body and the tasks associated with it."

Photo by Flickr user gadl, used under a Creative Commons license.


Sugarmag said...

Hey Sungold, cool stuff. I want to be a student in your class.

Sungold said...

I wish you were! I think there's so much we can learn about this stuff as we get older and are driven more by genuine curiosity (versus, say, the expectation that college is just what you ought to be doing between ages 18 and 21).

Sugarmag said...

Maybe so, but I liked college more when I was an undergraduate (18-21) than when I was a graduate student (older). Graduate school chewed me up and spit me out. Shudder. Bad times.

Sungold said...

Oh, I know grad school can be harsh. I loved it, but most people I knew were just trying to survive it.

What did you study in grad school? I recall you did some archeology earlier.

SunflowerP said...

What Sugarmag said about wanting to be one of your students! I've had that thought several times already.

As for the modern applicability of your example, what springs to my mind is the potential for adding perspective when considering the variation in reproductive politics for feminists in different parts of the world - "natural childbirth" western-society-style is a very privileged thing compared to the dilemma of medical vs traditional childbirth in many other places. By no means suggesting that other parallels to the 18th/19th centuries necessarily apply, but - well, I've seen first-world feminists reframe the reproductive politics of third-world feminists in terms of what "natural childbirth" means in the first world. Understanding that there were feminist reasons for medicalizing childbirth in the first place might make them a bit slower to assume their own frames apply. (Or not, but it's even less likely to happen if the info is less readily available.)


Sungold said...

All right, I'm blushing from the compliments! Thanks! I'd love to have you in one of my classes, Sunflower.

I love your application of this. "Natural" childbirth as we know it not just highly privileged. It's also a world away from the example of an African woman giving birth on her own (supposedly pain- and problem-free!) cited by its early western proponents such as Grantley Dick-Read. We romanticize such mythical examples at our peril - and to the great detriment of the world's less privileged women.

Sugarmag said...

Yes that may be true BUT! medical interventions come with their own risks to both mother and baby and sometimes doctors make decisions based on what is convenient for them rather than what is in the best interest of the mother and baby. And the thing that bothers me the most is just how arrogant doctors can be. We've talked about this before Sungold, so you know where my passions lie, but a normal healthy non medical birth can be a wonderful thing. Even so, modern medicine is important for determining which mothers are good candidates for a normal healthy birth, and I had my own "natural birth" in a hospital with a midwife. There are in fact good reasons for C-sections.

I studied historic archeology. The professor I worked with was an asshole and I didn't like him and second semester I took a class I wanted to take instead of his class (they met at the same time) and he was insulted (I should have talked to him about it) and it was a bad scene all around. The school I went to had a big forensics department and it was highly (backstabbing) competitive and although I was not a part of that, it effected the whole department and the behavior among the grad students was like middle school. Even the professors participated and it was just poisonous. I was dropped from the program mostly because of what happened with that professor (whose class I didn't take) but also because I got a C in biological anthropology (it was a core class that all first year anthropology grad students had to take and I just couldn't make myself do the reading, I am no biologist and I am not so into bones and evolutionary theory). So anyway, I was just devastated at the time but now I think it is a good thing. I said for a long time that I never wanted to take a class or write another paper for as long as I lived. Now that my student loan is almost paid off, I might come around, but school is expensive so maybe not, I'll probably just read and blog if I feel like it. That is probably way more than you wanted to know! Do send me your paper when it is done, if you don't mind sharing. I would like to read it.

Sungold said...

Absolutely. Most interventions come with risks, and apart from convenience (which I think is a relatively minor factor), the whole malpractice system is geared to punish doctors when they do not take action. This is probably the biggest driver behind the c-section rate, IMO.

Oy. The politics of grad school! I had some of that with a few of my fellow students. I once got a very nice fellowship, and while I never ever would have said that others weren't equally deserving, there were a couple of people who got jealous and petty over it. So even those of us who were happy to be in grad school had our moments!

But if you have an asshole professor, that makes grad school just not worth it. What's far more important in the long run is genuine curiosity - and if you can nurture that best outside the academic world, there's nothing shabby about it! I see you thinking and writing through issues that are new to you, and that's wonderful and exciting.

Once this paper is done, I'll be more than happy to share it with you and Kochanie and anyone else whom I know and trust. I just have to finish the darn thing first!