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About this book

The body has come to occupy a central place in cultural history, with historians consistently exploring such themes as the history of disease, disability, beauty, and sexuality. This engaging and concise book offers a clear introduction to the history of the body, introducing a wide array of conceptual approaches to the field. It delineates the topic of body history and its origins in cultural history and gender history, distinguishing it from related disciplines such as the history of the self, the history of medicine, the history of emotion and gender history. Bringing in a wealth of thought-provoking examples from historical writing, it goes on to explore a range of themes, including racism, anorexia, gender and sexuality, psychoanalysis and agency.

With further reading and explanations of key concepts provided throughout, this wide-ranging yet accessible text is the first introductory book to address this vibrant field from a theoretical perspective. It is ideal for students of historiography, medical history or the history of the body.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Abstract
The history of the body as a separate field was shaped in the 1980s and 1990s. This new attention to the body has been variously referred to as the corporeal, bodily, or somatic turn. Before this corporeal turn, historians had, as the French medievalist Jacques le Goff put it, written the histories of men (and to a lesser extent, women) ‘without bodies’, that is histories of disembodied people’s thoughts and ideas The body in history had mostly been discussed by historians of medicine, who, however, assumed the body to be an unchanging biological entity. It was the British historian Roy Porter who first provided an overview of the new history of the body in 1991, in a volume edited by Peter Burke that distanced itself from a more traditional history focused on the ‘objective’ reconstruction of political events. The new history, by contrast, was concerned with socio economic, cultural and political dimensions, an analysis of structures and daily life ‘from below’, all of this based on an interdisciplinary analysis of a variety of primary sources and keen to present opposite viewpoints Within this new perspective, Porter addressed the history of the body, remarking that so far this had been neglected because both the classical and the Judeo-Christian traditions held a dualistic division of man, privileging mind over body. However, Porter pointed to many developments, both in academia and in society, which had stimulated greater attention for the body, also among historians: Marxism, the work of Russian philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, the French Annales historians, cultural anthropology, sociology and medical sociology, feminism, historical demography and the impact of AIDS These factors had led historians to write about, for instance, the history of pain, hysteria, sexuality and beauty.
Willemijn Ruberg

2. 1 Body, Mind, and Self: Historical Perspectives

Abstract
This chapter provides an overview of the main developments in the history of the human body, with the focus lying not on material changes in the body as in daily experience, or on socio-economic trends in health, poverty and disease, but rather on cultural images of the body. Since it is impossible to be exhaustive, several choices have been made: first, I highlight important continuities, such as humoral theory, which originated in antiquity and continued to be of vital importance in making sense of the body until around 1900; second, I underline striking differences between body images in consecutive periods. Where these differences are concerned, special attention will be paid to the modern body and its relationship with the notions of mind and self.
Willemijn Ruberg

3. 2 The Modern Body, Discipline, and Agency

Abstract
The first books on the history of the body often started from the premise that bodies in the past were disciplined. This chapter will discuss the two most prominent theoretical perspectives on corporeal discipline: that of Norbert Elias on the civilizing process, and that of Michel Foucault on docile bodies. It will furthermore address postcolonial critiques on the notion of ‘civilization’ and the role of the body in these critiques.
Willemijn Ruberg

4. The Social Construction of the Body and Disease

Abstract
Bodies have not only been given cultural meaning through, or were shaped by, discipline. In this chapter I will focus on social constructionist approaches to the body and disease, of which discipline is only one potential element. As sociologist Chris Shilling defines it: ‘social constructionism is an umbrella term for those views that suggest the body is shaped, constrained, and even invented by society’. The common denominator of social constructionist approaches is that they emphasize that the body (or disease, gender, race, or disability) is culturally constructed. This implies that in different periods and in different places and societies, varying images of the body prevail. In this way, social constructionism argues against biologist or essentialist approaches, which view the body or sexual differences as fixed and natural. With regard to gender differences, for instance, statements such as ‘men’s bodies are strong; women’s bodies are weak’, or ‘men are rational; women are emotional’ can be considered essentialist since they point to natural, unchanging differences between the sexes. A social constructionist account, on the contrary, would highlight that the differences in bodily strength between men are as variable as the differences in strength between men and women, and that everyone can become stronger with physical training. Similarly, historians have shown how in the eighteenth-century ‘cult of sensibility’ men were encouraged to cry and were thus seen as emotional creatures. Social constructionists thus highlight cultural and historical changeability.
Willemijn Ruberg

5. 4 The Body, Gender, and Sexuality

Abstract
This chapter builds on the previous chapter in discussing how social constructionist theories can be applied to the study of gender, sexuality, and the body. The work of historians in this field will be compared with feminist, gender, and queer theory. This chapter focuses on two main themes: firstly, the question of whether sexual difference (or the idea that two kinds of bodies exist, i.e., male and female) is culturally constructed, and if so, how views have changed over time; and secondly, the issue of how we can theorize the relationships between sex, gender, and desire, and how these relationships may have varied in the course of history.
Willemijn Ruberg

6. 5 Experiencing the Body

Abstarct
The previous two chapters discussed scholars, such as Foucault and Butler, who emphasize how the body is given meaning through discourse. These approaches have been a helpful correction to naturalistic essentialism by shifting our attention to cultural constructions of the body and gender; however, they often limit the meaning of bodies to being symbolic and discursive signifiers, to the neglect of the material and lived experience, or the phenomenology, of the body.This chapter will provide an overview of different theories that highlight the body as experienced by individuals. The central notion here is the term ‘embodiment’, which is here defined as the ‘lived body’. It is comparable to the German Leib, which refers to the living, felt body, whereas Körper denotes the body as object. The concept of the lived body rejects Cartesian dualism, which rigidly separates mind from body and regards the body as a material object. The lived body is directed towards relationships with other people, other things, and the environment and is thus bound up with an experienced world
Willemijn Ruberg

7. 6 Materialist Approaches to the Body

Abstrcat
In the preceding chapters, we have confronted the limitations of several theoretical approaches when it comes to reconstructing historical bodily experience. We have seen how social constructionist approaches have been welcomed for paying attention to cultural variability in representing the body, but have also been criticized for not addressing the material, biological body. Phenomenological approaches, on the other hand, do attempt to reconstruct and analyze bodily experience, but have also proved problematic because of the limitations of primary sources regarding (individual) corporeal experience. In many theories, moreover, individual, bodily agency is found to be lacking. In this final chapter, therefore, we will discuss a new branch of theoretical approaches that claims to put the material body at the centre of the analysis. We will first discuss approaches that emphasize the biological aspects of the body, and then a diverse set of theories that can be grouped under the heading ‘new materialism’. New materialism seeks new theoretical approaches that go beyond discourse analysis.It can be seen as a critique of the late twentieth-century dominance of the linguistic paradigm in the humanities, as well as a re-examination of the central place of the human being, focusing rather on the connections between humans and non-humans such as objects, animals, plants and the environment. It thus foregrounds ‘matter’.
Willemijn Ruberg

8. Conclusion

Abstract
Undoubtedly, the rise of body history from the late 1980s was strongly connected to the cultural and linguistic turns. The cultural turn paved the way for an attention to human behaviour in daily life, including illness, health, and sexuality, while the linguistic turn stimulated historians to study representations of gender and the body in symbolic practices, images, and discourses. The latter shift to the representation of the body led to a wealth of studies on the historical framing of diseases such as tuberculosis, hysteria, and anorexia, but also on the construction of gendered bodies and individual body parts, such as the skin or the vagina These studies have revealed the body as so much more than a natural, biological entity and have given us insight into the historically variable meanings projected onto bodies. They have demonstrated how the body is often used (or abused) by political ideology, how difference is attached to bodies, but also how the body is made productive, especially in the modern era. In short, the history of the body has been a fruitful lens through which to approach not only social and cultural history, but also history writing more broadly. As Roger Cooter notes, the ‘somatic turn’, which was strongly connected with the postmodern linguistic turn, discussed more than just the body as a discrete object of enquiry: ‘The “somatic turn” (of which body history was a part) was broadly a means to explicate and illustrate how concepts and categories like “the body” and practices like “history” served to naturalize, rationalize and cohere a reality that was increasingly felt by many late twentieth century intellectuals to be fragmented.’ Cooter argues that the corporeal turn problematized an essentialist view of the body, just as it critiqued the modernist notion of objective, coherent history writing.
Willemijn Ruberg
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