Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Our Bodies, Our Experiences

I just learned today that a conference paper I assumed would be due next month is due ... today. Oops. The good news is that hardly anyone meets the so-called deadlines for conferences. (Students of mine - past, present, and future - you didn't hear me say that, and if you did, you're not off the hook!)

This paper is unfinished partly because I bit off way more than I'm actually qualified to handle. The title is "The Meaningful and the Mute: Theorizing and Historicizing Embodied Experience." Translated into everyday language, the subtitle really ought to be: "WTF Was I Thinking?" I'm a historian; I'm so not a philosopher!

What I think I want to say in this paper is that the experiences we have as embodied creatures - those experiences that directly engage our bodies - are particularly meaningful and transformative, not just to us as individuals but to the evolution of society and politics. I want to make the argument that intensely embodied experience is different from other kinds of experience because people are less likely to reflect on it. And if we take it for granted, it can hold greater sway over us.

Of course, you might object, all of our experience is embodied. And you'd be right. As I sit typing this, an activity that mostly involves thought, my mind isn't somehow mysteriously disembodied like one of those pulsing, glass-encased brains in an old sci-fi movie. All kinds of chemicals are coursing through me, my fingers are moving faster than my thoughts, and my upper back is twinging just enough to be a slight distraction. It's not just that we have bodies, we are our bodies. One thing I obviously need to do in my paper is take some swings at good old mind-body dualism.

But the kinds of experience I'm thinking of are those in which our bodies are fully engaged, where we're completely inhabiting our bodies. Sports might be one example (though not one I'll explore, because as a serious lifelong klutz I'm not interested enough). Sex is one you've probably thought about already. Illness. Dancing. Physical work (at least some of the time). And then there's childbirth, which will be the main focus of my paper, since that's what I study as a historian.

The main problem I think I'm facing (though I'm sure others will crop up) is how to argue effectively that this sort of experience is uniquely influential without however simply assuming what I'm trying to prove. I need to spend some time communing with the philosophers, especially Merleau-Ponty and feminists who've written on him. But at the end of the day, I'm still not gonna be a philosopher, and we historians are expected to cough up some evidence.

You might see more posts on these themes if I can manage to be not too jargon-y and full of hot air. In the meantime, I'm interested in others' take on it. So please let me know whether you buy the idea that certain kinds of experience are more potent than others in shaping our selves, our identities, our communities.

Image by Flickr user nathaliebee, used under a Creative Commons license.


J.B. Kochanie said...


I am very interested in reading WTF you are thinking about The Meaningful and the Mute: Theorizing and Historicizing Embodied Experience. Our relationship to our bodies and our devaluation of anything connected with our bodies has been a subject I have been reading, thinking and writing (privately) about for many years. So I wish you the good fortune of being in the flow when your take your place before the computer screen.

Sugarmag said...

Hi Sungold,

You study the history of childbirth? Fascinating, I love it. I think that certain kinds of experiences are more potent than others, in terms of what we remeber, but I am not sure about how they shape us and our communities, that's harder. The other day I was talking to a woman I didn't even know and I mentioned that I work with breastfeeding mothers and she told me all about her birth and breastfeeding experiences. I have actually had that experience lots of times, women want to talk about their birth experiences. I have also heard anecdotes about old women with dementia who don't recognize their family members but they remember birth and breastfeeding clearly.

Sugarmag said...

I forgot to say, I would really like to read your paper when it's done.

Sungold said...

Kochanie and Sugar Mag - I will probably have a few more posts along these lines as I work my way into the material. When the final paper is done, it'll probably be dreadfully academic, but I'd be happy to send you copies.

Kochanie, I know that you've been thinking about this stuff for years, and I think it's terrific. It's reflected in your blog posts.

Yes, Sugar Mag, I wrote a huge dissertation on the history of childbirth in early 20th century Germany. The great thing is, I still like the topic, even though I've been at it for years. Lucky me!