Sunday, June 22, 2008

More Berks: Reflections on Writing Body History

Along with learning heaps from other people at the Berks, I also had a chance to talk about my own work in a conference seminar called “What is the history of the body?” We pre-circulated the papers and then used the conference time to explore their overlapping themes, which allowed discussion to go both wider and deeper than at an ordinary conference panel. The papers ranged from Heather Munro Prescott’s research on students fighting for birth control and other health services in the 1960s to Jessica Luther’s explication of alchemists’ attempts to quite literally incarnate themselves as men with wombs: hermaphrodites who embodied both “male” creativity and “female” generativity.

My own paper, which I mentioned here when it was still a bundle of semi-formed ideas, was a theoretical piece on the relationship between discourses that shape bodies and actual lived, embodied experiences. I won’t try to rehash it all here, because it’s an adventure in scary theory; anyone who wants to know more about it should email me. Instead, I’d like to muse on the themes I addressed in my oral presentation for the seminar.

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. (Jessica’s paper for the seminar did just that impressively.)

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. I was younger than the students Heather studied, but 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 and some of what transpired there might be difficult to explain when I run for President someday.

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. This was a motivator for the students Heather studied. 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? (One influence on my thinking about this - along with a slew of academic stuff - was a discussion along these lines involving figleaf, Kochanie, and others.)

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. Jessica’s paper actually did this, quite beautifully, 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 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 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. Most of us who don’t write strictly political blogs 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 as we blog 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.


Sugarmag said...

These thoughts resonated with me very much, Sungold. Your approach is much more academic than mine, but yes. For one thing, the reason I became a mother in the first place? I wanted to experience pregnancy and birth and being a mother and the experience gave me a sense of being connected to other women in the past. Being pregnant, giving birth, being a mother, seemed to me to be fundamental to the experience of being a woman and I wanted to experience it. I wanted to feel a baby kick, I wanted to feel the pain of giving birth, I wanted to experience it. I think when I say that it sounds like I am saying that a woman is not complete somehow if she is not a mother and I don't mean that, not at all (this is all so political, isn't it?), I am talking about me and what I wanted out of life. I wanted to FEEL it. Being a mother has fundamentally changed me as a human being. The part that I did not anticipate before my daughter was born is just how hard it is to adjust to putting another person's needs before my own every minute of every day. Especially in the beginning when I had a brand new baby, it was hard! But I am glad I did, it's been great.

I had a similar coming of age experience in the early 90s. Not once a week, but yeah :). It was good but I could never do that now, even if I had a long weekend with no kids, the weight of responsibility is too much. The wheel keeps on turning, doesn't it? Not fade away.

Sungold said...

Sugar Mag, I'd love to write more about this if I weren't in the midst of wildly packing for my trip to see my family in California. For me, too, the idea of *experiencing* being a mother was a huge part of my motivation to have a child. That, and my feeling that I'd regret it if I didn't do it. I think I know almost exactly what you mean; it's not about motherhood as female destiny, but instead about the chance to experience something profound and deeply human.

And yeah, the *real* experience sure can be a rough ride. Many days, I just hold on tight and hope for the best! But I don't regret it in the big scheme of things.

Hesperis said...

I'm choosing an awfully small part of a very interesting post, but I'm truly interested, so I hope you'll forgive.
I'm interested in the notion that the body effacement that we all find necessary, more or less, to get things done sometimes, re-enacts Cartesian dualism. Whereas you are against splitting ourselves into body and mind.
Yes, me too. But does the effacement really imply body/mind dualism? The body may SEEM to disappear, but of course, it doesn't. It may become indistinct, but it's not cast adrift.
This is important to me because I am working at an understanding of my own mindbody. From time to time, I hear a variety if people trying to repair the dualism by saying "the mind and body" are connected.
I say "no". THAT re-enacts the dualism. Mind and body are not connected, they are one. They are infused with each other. Body is mind and mind is body.
One of the ways this plays out is in the phenomenon of dissociation. The greatest body effacement of all time. But there's evidence that the body remembers what the mind hasn't taken in, attended to, integrated.
So while we may efface the body, it's not as if we can actually turn it off. It's as if we have different aspects and sometimes one aspect is at the forefront and sometimes another.
What do you think? Or am I making too much of nothing?


Sungold said...

Thanks for stopping by, Hysperia! These are such good questions that I've been mulling them over for the past few days. I'm *still* mulling and I think I need to work on a follow-up post.

I visited your blog and liked it very much. I've added it to my blogroll - hope you don't mind!

Hesperis said...

Gosh, I've never minded if someone put me on their blogroll. I'm honoured. I just recently found your blog myself. And I really really like it, so thanks for your interesting work.

I've only been blogging for three months and I still don't know the manners around everything. Am I supposed to ask people's permission to link to their blog?


Sungold said...

Oh, I haven't been at this much longer than you. Thanks for the compliment! It means a lot coming from someone whose own work I enjoy and admire.

You certainly don't have to ask for permission to link people; you just need to provide the link in some reasonably clear form. It's not unlike academic footnotes in that regard. People get in trouble when they quote or appropriate without linking - again, much like in academia.

As for adding people to your blogroll: I don't think that's ever really a problem. Most people are tickled to get the attention and a few new visitors. I do like to let people know when I've done it. Often people will return the favor, which is lovely, though you can never outright expect that. Some people keep very small blogrolls, while others list 100s of blogs. I will add anyone whose work is interesting enough that I'll want to read it myself. That rules out random people and right wingers. (I had a conservative evangelical ask to be added last winter, and I politely said no to him.) Overall, though, I prefer to be inclusive.

The trickiest thing is images - making sure they're in the public domain or that I can at least claim "fair use." Generally I go to Flickr's Creative Commons for that. In case you don't have a link to it already, this might come in handy:

Finally, I formulated a comments policy a couple months ago when I got a cluster of abusive ones. If you write on reproductive justice, you are guaranteed to get some of that, but just about any feminist issue can attract the nutjobs.

Hope this helps, even though it's from one newbie to another!

Hesperis said...

A major thank you to you for going to the trouble of offering this good advice.

I have lots of people on my blogroll, but I do tend to take my time adding them. I kinda like to make sure that they are blogs that I will actually pop in on, at least from time to time. If you can believe this, and I'm sure you can, I've never had the, er, self-confidence to ask to be on anyone's blogroll. I think I'll re-think that one. I have also been absurdly pleased to find myself on a blogroll. I've gone from peer reviewed journals to peer reviewed blogs in just a few, short but not particularly easy steps! lol and keep on ...

Sungold said...

Yeah, I agree that it doesn't really make sense to put someone on my blogroll unless I appreciate their work. Blogrolls should express a kind of kinship (for lack of a better word) so that if I explore the links at a blog I like, I'll also find a few new-to-me blogs that I'll enjoy.

As for asking? I think it's easiest to let someone know you've added them. Often they'll just reciprocate. If not, you can humbly ask. All they can do is say no.

Last January Jon Swift and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo promoted what they called "Blogroll Amnesty Day" - a day where people were supposed to add others liberally to their blogrolls, and feel free to ask the same. This was, I believe, the second time they did it, so watch for it in January. It was a very cool thing and I participated in a very minor way.