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.”