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Building New Bridges - Bâtir de nouveaux ponts

Jeff Keshen
Sylvie Perrier

4 – Re-disciplining the Body

Lisa Helps

Texte intégral

  • 1 Kathleen Canning, “The Body as Method? Reflections on the Place of the Body in Gender History,” Ge (...)
  • 2 Caroline Bynum, “Why All This Fuss About the Body? A Medievalists’ Perspective,” Critical Inquiry (...)

1Despite the “veritable flood of books, conferences, and panels on body history, or bodies in history,” why, historian Kathleen Canning asks, has the body remained a largely “unexplicated and undertheorised historical concept.”1 I would add that this lack of historical theorization is particularly surprising in light of the veritable torrent of literature on the body over the last fifteen years in areas as diverse as geography, philosophy, anthropology, cultural studies, and biology, to name only a few. In addressing this disparate body of work, medieval historian Caroline Bynum has argued that “despite the enthusiasm for the topic, discussions of the body are almost completely incommensurate – and often incomprehensible – across the disciplines... Body can refer to the organ on which a physician operates or the assumptions about race and gender implicit in a medical textbook, to the particular trajectory of one person’s desire or to inheritance patterns and family structures.” Bynum points out that “there is no clear set of structures, behaviours, events, objects, experiences, words, and moments to which body currently refers.”2 What then of the body in history?

  • 3 Leslie Adelson, Making Bodies, Making History: Feminism and German Identity (Lincoln: University o (...)

2Historians of the body, gender, and medicine as well as philosophers, literary theorists, psychologists, and others whose work is examined here, not surprisingly, approach the body (in history) from a multiplicity of perspectives, and have a variety of empirical and epistemological projects and goals. What is evident from a review of these studies is that there is no such thing as body history. Other than Barbara Duden, Ivan Illich, and perhaps Roy Porter, no scholars self-consciously identify themselves as practitioners of a sub-discipline known as “body history.” However, many of them do argue, to varying degrees, for the necessity of historicizing the body, for examining the myriad of ways in which the post-Cartesian, iatrogenic, disembodied body is not the body that has always been. In so doing, many formulate their arguments on the basis of dichotomies which, for the most part, tend to privilege the “material” body and to shy away from, or implicitly deny, the “discursive.” After reviewing these calls for historicization and investigating the most prominent dichotomy expressed by many of these scholars, that of “experience versus representation,” I propose a theoretical framework, which posits bodies (in history) as historically contingent and as simultaneously material-discursive, experience-representations constituted through relations of power. I argue that, using this framework, all history might indeed be “body history” for as Leslie Adelson asserts, “What is history if not the accounts of human bodies in and over time? History without bodies is unimaginable.”3

The Corporeal Turn - Historicizing the Body

  • 4 Ibid., 34.

The body is so many things all at the same time. Sometimes the victim of history, it is always the object of historical construction, the site of historical experience, the arbiter of all cognition, and the material ground of freedom. It is a thing and a sign, an inside and an outside, a boundary constantly crossing itself.4

3If, as Adelson suggests above, the body is indeed all of these things, what precisely are those who advocate an historicist approach to the body calling for? What exactly is it that must be historicized? The material body? Bodily experience? Representations of the body? What is this “body” to which scholars so assuredly refer? An examination of the work of Roy Porter, Barbara Duden, and Robert Romanyshyn will reveal the complexity of attempting to answer any of these questions.

  • 5 Barbara Duden, “History Beneath the Skin,” Michigan Quarterly Review 30 (1991): 174.
  • 6 Roy Porter, “The History of the Body,” in Peter Burke, ed.. New Perspectives on Historical Writing(...)
  • 7 Ibid., 207.
  • 8 Ibid., 209.

4Historians of medicine, and/or those who use medical records as sources, have been at the forefront of interrogating the propensity of historians to view the body as a “natural fact” or a “biological given.” These scholars tend to examine the physical, material body, “one’s very flesh and blood.”5 Roy Porter, the most eminent of these, argues in “The History of the Body,” that scholars must not assume that the “human body has timelessly existed as an unproblematic natural object with universal needs and wants.”6 He draws attention to the 1960s and 1970s; in his view, the emergence of the sexual revolution, consumer capitalism, and critiques from both the counter-culture and feminists culminated in a “cultural revolution,” the outcome of which “demolish[ed] old cultural hierarchies of mind over body.” As a result, scholarly attention has shifted from “well-established sub-disciplines such as the history of ideas, and towards the exploration of ‘material culture’, one limb of which is the history of the body.”7 Both Porter’s claim, and the embodied (limb-like) metaphor through which he makes it, clearly point to the material body as his preeminent object of historicization. Ardently empiricist, Porter argues that the most effective way to approach different bodies in different times and places is through empirical research rather than general theorizing. Thus, he praises Barbara Duden’s work, which is concerned with how “real people felt pain” and which investigates the (actual) “sickness experiences” of women in early eighteenth-century Germany and dismisses Elaine Scarry’s philosophical and literary analysis in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World which argues that pain is often “inexpressible.” Contrary to Scarry’s claim, he maintains that “actual accounts of pain... are often expressed with exactitude and eloquence.” Re-asserting his materialist/empiricist leanings, he remarks in the conclusion to his discussion of Scarry’s work that “of course, to someone aspiring to the higher intellectual exegesis, empirical research may, like the body itself, seem gross and banausic.”8

  • 9 Ibid., 211,224.

5It is through Porter’s condemnation of Scarry, however, that a strictly empiricist/materialist approach to historicizing the body can be called into question. In making a declaration about “the body itself,” Porter appears to do precisely what he cautions scholars against, that is, taking the body for granted. The body is itself constituted through history and thus must be understood and investigated as such. On one level, Porter does recognize this. He notes, for example, that “pursuing the history of the body is... not merely a matter of crunching vital statistics or decoding representation. Rather it is a call to make sense of the interplay between the two.” Yet he does not offer any theoretical or methodological guidelines as to how historians might go about accessing and examining this interplay. Finally, in his list of seven agenda items for exploring the history of the body, the material body (which is clearly his “body itself”) is centred and privileged. In “3. The Anatomy of the Body” he asks: “What did people mean when they talked, literally and figuratively, of their blood, their head or their heart, their bowels? How did people think of their bodies, their aches and pains when they fell sick? ”9 Continuing with his relatively anti-discursive stance, Porter does not consider that the ways in which people thought about and explained their sickness (and their health), for example, depended on the discourses of illness and health available to them in a given time and place, nor does he examine how their experiences in turn might have shaped those discourses. Indeed to subsume the blood, the head, the heart, the bowels under the heading “anatomy” suggests that these are (only) material and somehow separate from the wider symbolic world in and through which they were experienced historically.

  • 10 Duden, “History Beneath the Skin,” 175, 181.

6Barbara Duden, like Porter, uses the paradigm of modern medicine to historicize the body. As she points out in her article, “History Beneath the Skin,” to render the body historical involves an examination of the ways in which the body of experience, the body that one is, has become objectified by and through modern medicine. She argues that there is a “gulf between diagnostic vocabulary and the experience of the sick” and that this gulf has a history: “This history has two sides. On one side is the sociogenesis of the clinical, modern body, which is linked to the development of medical terminology; on the other side are the sick who have been silenced, and then trained to experience the body they are told they ‘have’.” In Duden’s conceptualization, the historicized body is the muted material body. When the eighteenth-century women patients she examines using physicians’ records complained “about the anguish of their heart, how it is hard and burdened, and when they seek relief from a heart that is grudging and biting, or a heart that is eaten up... They speak about something that is ‘real’ is ‘body’.”10 The body for Duden, then, as investigated through a medical paradigm was once “real” and is now metaphor and object. To make this argument overlooks the critical point that the body must be conceived as inextricably and simultaneously real and metaphorical, material and discursive, that is, when a woman said her heart was hard, she represented her body in the metaphorical language of suffering in order to make sense of her life and to obtain relief from her physician. Furthermore, to assert that the sick have been silenced and trained to experience their bodies as objects which they “have,” Duden, like Porter, fails to consider how the making of modern medicine and the making of the modern body were constitutive of each other.

  • 11 For other material and experiential approaches to historicizing the body, see Ivan Illich, “A Plea (...)
  • 12 Robert Romanyshyn, “The Human Body as Historical Matter and Cultural Symptom,” in Maxine Sheets-Jo (...)
  • 13 Romanyshyn, “Human Body,” 162, 171.
  • 14 Ibid., 172. In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Random House, 1995), Mich (...)

7In stark contrast to the material and experiential approaches of Porter, Duden and others,11 in “The Human Body as Historical Matter and Cultural Symptom,” psychologist Robert Romanyshyn seeks to historicize the body by examining the history of its representation. Like the scholars discussed above, he argues that “the body as anatomical object... is not so much a natural fact as it is a cultural-historical matter.” He further asserts that “the history of the flesh has taken two distinct but related paths, there’s the history of the corpse, the abandoned body which is a kind of official history... And there is an unofficial history, a kind of shadow history, which remembers the body of living flesh disguised, forgotten, or otherwise ignored in that official history.” Romanyshyn traces the beginning point of these two notions of the body (and the two sides of history), as well as the nascence of modern consciousness, to Renaissance Florence12 and the advent of linear perspective drawing, which prescribed the geometrical rules for representing the illusion of three-dimensional space on flat two-dimensional surfaces. He maintains that this mode of representation “is a prescription for vision which invites the viewer to look upon the world as if he or she were fixed and immobile on this side of a window.” This window-effect creates a boundary between the onlooker and the world and is an “invitation not only to keep an eye upon the world, but to lose touch with it.” In his estimation, linear perspective drawing created a three dimensional representational space through which the self abandoned the body (as the self was cast out of the picture as “viewer”) and simultaneously, the abandoned body, the specimen, the corpse was born. It is the abandoned corpse-like body which functions as Romanyshyn’s metaphor for official history and the shadow of the corpse that of unofficial or repressed history. He makes the important argument that “each age in the span of... history has missed how its shadow body is the other side of the body it invented.”13 He illustrates this point by arguing that in the age of industrialization, for example, “the madman and madwoman in their cells are the shadows of the workers in their factories, factories are the social counterpart of the asylum.”14

  • 15 Romanyshyn, “Human Body,” 169.
  • 16 Porter, “History of the Body,” 226.

8What can we make of Romanyshyn’s historicized body? First, and significantly, he traces the origins of the modern body and the origins of modern consciousness to the same time and place. According to him, modern consciousness, represented in, by, and through linear perspective drawing, created the modern body by a process of abandonment. In this sense, body and mind remained linked at the point of constitution in a way they did not in Cartesian thought, to which is attributed the creation of the modern thinking self but not of modern (dis)embodiment. Second, though he appeals to the “flesh” and the “corpse,” it is evident that his analysis functions at the level of theoretical generalization for which Porter condemned Elaine Scarry and her Bodies in Pain. For example, in the last section of Romanyshyn’s article entitled “The Astronaut and the Anorexic,” he does not examine the “actual experiences” of the (actual) bodies of astronauts or anorexics, but uses these as yet another metaphor of the abandoned body, and its shadow, respectively. Although primarily working in the realm of discourse/representation, he does not ardently deny the material. In fact, he asserts that the shadow history, the unofficial history, is “a history of the repressed living flesh.”15 This seems, curiously, to echo Porter’s claim that the body in history is a “suppressed presence.”16 Although situated differently in their approaches to historicizing the body, both these authors argue that what has not received attention from scholars is a history of the flesh, of the senses. Yet significantly, neither draws explicit attention to the importance – in terms of historicizing the body and in doing “body history” – of examining what it might have meant to make sense of oneself/the world in a given time and place, through epoch-specific discourses and particular relations of power.

Making Sense – Representing the Experienced Body

  • 17 See Joan Hoff, “Gender as a Postmodern Category of Paralysis,” Women’s Studies International Forum(...)
  • 18 See Joy Parr, “Gender History and Historical Practice,” Canadian Historical Review, 76, no. 3 (199 (...)
  • 19 Parr, “Gender History,” 365.

9The question of how to access historical experience has been a central focus of recent historiographical debate, particularly in post-linguisticturn feminist history/historiography. Certain women’s and feminist historians cling to experience as an unproblematized category of analysis,17 whereas others concede the usefulness of experience as a site of investigation but claim that it must be understood as constituted through discourse.18 Joy Parr argues that to historicize experience is to examine historical systems of meaning, that is the ways in which people have made experience meaningful through discourse.19 Any attempt to study the body in history necessarily complexifies this debate – the dyad of experience-discourse becomes the triad of experience-body-representation. Perhaps unable to think trialectically, or on all of these levels simultaneously, the question for most historians of the body seems to be whether it is more useful to examine historical experience or representation. In most instances, historians concerned with the body tend to privilege the first two terms of the triad and to eschew representation as something other than the body. Such an approach is limited in that it fails to take seriously the complex material-discursive, experience-representations of the bodies of historical subjects and the worlds in which they moved or the possibility that the body, conceived in this way, might alter the way we do history.

  • 20 Illich, “Plea for Body History,” 345. Emphasis in original.

10One of the ways in which historians have endeavoured to deal with this tension of experience-body-representation is by attempting to tease this triad apart. In his “Plea for Body History,” Ivan Illich notes that he “began to see that there was a distinct awareness of the body as the primary locus of experience. This body, specific to one period, but subject to profound transformations, sometimes occurring within relatively short spans of time, was parallel to but clearly distant from the body that was painted, sculpted, and described in that historical moment.”20 Michel Feher, in his introduction to the dense three-volume, Fragments for a History of the Human Body, expresses a similar sentiment. He argues that,

  • 21 Michel Feher, “Introduction,” in Michel Feher, ed., Fragments for a History of the Human Body (New (...)

the history of the human body is not so much about the history of its representations as of its modes of construction... the history of its representations always refers to a real body considered to be ‘without history’ – whether this be the organism observed by the natural sciences, the body proper as perceived by phenomenology, or the instinctual, repressed body on which psychoanalysis is based – whereas the history of its modes of construction can, since it avoids the overly massive oppositions of science and ideology or of authenticity and alienation, turn the body into a thoroughly historicized and completely problematic issue.21

11For both Illich and Feher, analyzing the history of the body through its representations is problematic. Illich’s assumption is that representation and experience are parallel but not interwoven. Therefore, if historians were to study representations of the body, they might not attend to the body as a “locus of experience,” and hence there is a danger of “missing” the body and its experience altogether. Feher’s wariness of representation is somewhat different. His fear is that representations of the body often purport to be representations of the real, which in his implicit definition seems to connote fixity, stasis, and ahistoricity. Both authors seem to be addressing representations of the body in dominant discourse and both appear to assume that a body’s “experience” and “modes of construction” might somehow be probed historically without attention to these representations. However, does (bodily) experience have meaning outside its representations? How can historians examine body-experience as made in specific times and places without examining how the body was represented in these same times and places? The body is made, in part, through its representation; representation is one of the body’s modes of construction.

  • 22 Parr, “Notes for a More Sensuous History,” 729, 735-37. She gets this concept from the “experiment (...)

12Equally challenging for historians as sorting out the relationships among bodies, experiences, and dominant representations is the issue of how to study the sensing body of experience. In a recent article calling for a more sensuous history of twentieth-century Canada, Joy Parr argues that “neither the ahistorical [physical] body nor the physical body trussed up as a discursive construct alone is going to take us far along the path towards a more sensuous history.” Parr posits that there “is a material, non-discursive body that sensuously perceives space and place and other bodies.” The problem here, of course, is that if a pre-discursive sensing body exists, how can historians access this body/these bodies historically without examining what they tell us they sense. While conceding that there are two elements, the “sensation itself and the way of making sense of it,” Parr advocates that “researching this subject means asking questions about the particular matrix of relationships among the senses of those whose past we seek to know.” For example, she argues that the “gnawing undertone in a village whose factory has ceased production during a strike” makes, in part, “the historical bodies whose actions we watch and whose records we read.” If Parr is asking scholars to expand their own sensuous historical imaginings, taking these “keynotes” – as she calls these types of sounds (and silences) – into consideration is useful.22 However, the only way historians can access the impact this “gnawing undertone” might have had on the experiences-bodies of the villagers is if these were represented in the “records we read.” Parr seems to privilege a pre-discursive sensing body without providing adequate suggestions as to how the historian might come within reach of this body. In terms of doing sensuous body history, then, the critical question is: how can we examine the sense that people made of their sensing bodies and the ways in which they made this sense?

  • 23 Duden, “History Beneath the Skin,” 175, 176, 180, 183, 185, 187.

13Barbara Duden is able to answer this question, in part, by attempting to access the “voiced body of experience.” In order to do so she intentionally shifted her attention “from the history of the organism and its perceived shape to the history of the art of telling one’s own story about suffering.” Although she claims to be analyzing the experiences of eighteenth-century women patients, what Duden undertakes is a discourse analysis of their stories as recorded in a doctor’s diary between 1721 and 1742. She asserts that “more than a report of sensations, the women provide the story of connected feelings and experiences.” These stories are “bio-logies,” she argues, “spoken self-revelation[s],” “discoursing about one’s life.” By using this definition of biology she is able to cleverly weave self-representation in language and women’s bodily experiences inextricably together. She seems to understand, although does not explicitly address, that analyzing the ways in which the women spoke – their self-representations – does not obscure their bodies of experience. Such an analysis may in fact bring historians “closer” to them, right in/on/through them, as discourse on the body cannot be separated from the body itself. What is problematic about Duden’s approach, however, is her assertion that, unlike the bodies of her eighteenth-century patients, the experiences of modem bodies have become “disembodied"; “the body... has been removed from experience” through modern medical science. In the end, she privileges experience-body over experience-body-representation as she assumes that when the representations change - for example when blood is described as “circulating” rather than “urging, raging and gushing”23 - experience-body no longer exists. Representations are thus clearly not integral to Duden’s body of experience.

  • 24 Adelson, Making Bodies, 20.

14Finally, there are some scholars who do point to the importance of examining experience-body-representation and who see the body as the site in/on/through which this triad is constituted. In Making Bodies Making History: Feminism and German Identity, Leslie Adelson deals explicitly with the relationship among bodies, experiences, representation and history. Drawing on the work of German social theorists Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge and their approach to bodies and history, she argues that “their concept of an economy of experience [Erfahrungsokonomie] allows for the body as the site of cognition, the organ of historical experience, and the field onto and on which multiple, sometimes contradictory social antagonisms are projected and enacted.” Quite simply, Adelson conceives the body as a site of both representation and experience where the body and the world – if such a distinction can be made for the moment – are both active and are mutually constituted/constituting. While she cautions that “the discursive representation of the body must not be mistaken for the body of experience, however intricately imbricated the two may be,”24 she does not address how historians might make this mistake nor does she consider that it might be impossible to separate the two.

15Considering that neither experience nor representation are possible without the body and that the body is the site where these are filtered through each other, discursive representation cannot help but be “mistaken” for the body of experience. The site of production of both are the same, and simultaneous. The question, then, is how to examine the dissonances and tensions of representations and experiences, discourses and materialities? What might such an examination reveal? And what are the implications of such an investigation for Adelson’s assertion, posited at the outset, that “history without bodies is unimaginable,” and my own initial claim that all history might indeed be “body history?”

Framing Bodies of History/Histories of the Body

16One of the key limitations in current work on the history of the body, as alluded to above, is that scholars have yet to provide a theoretical framework with which to approach the bodies of history and all history as embodied. In an effort to develop such a framework, I turn from historical scholarship to recent writing on the body in geography, anthropology, feminist philosophy, literary theory, and cultural studies. My purpose is not to engage in a sustained critique of these works, but to consider how they might be theoretically useful to the practice of “body history” and historical practice in general. Drawing on these studies, my proposed framework includes four key points. First, it conceives “the body” as simultaneously and always material and discursive, experienced, and represented. Second, it relies on embodiment as the mode through which bodies are in the world. Third, it situates the body in space where spaces-bodies are not separate, but are constitutive of each other. Fourth, it sees power as productive.

1. Material-discursive Bodies

  • 25 Pamela Moss and Isabel Dyck, Women, Body, Illness: Space and Identity in the Everyday Lives of Wom (...)
  • 26 Samira Kawash, “The Homeless Body,” Public Culture 10, no. 2 (1998): 329.

17In considering the lives of chronically ill women, feminist geographers Pamela Moss and Isabel Dyck have refused to theorize the “chronically ill body.” Rather, they look at the ways in which women with chronic illnesses are both well and ill, able and disabled as they “exist through corporeal sensations and meanings of bodies ascribed by discourses.” Their focus is on the “entwinement, to the point of simultaneity rather than unity, of the discursive body – through inscription, signification, complicity – and the material body – through activity, sensation, modification.”25 Through these recursive constitutive processes, there can be no general body; rather, they demonstrate that the body is always becoming specific through interactions with other bodies in lived corporeal spaces. English scholar Samira Kawash’s important work on “the homeless body” pushes Moss and Dyck’s analysis further. In tracing the “homeless body” as a “product” of the struggle for control of so-called public space, she argues that “the homeless body emerges as the corporeal mark of the constitutive outside of the realm of the public, a product of the same spatial and economic processes that work to secure a place for the public. The body is therefore simultaneously material and emergent.”26 To illustrate this claim, she points out the association between “filth and stench” and homeless bodies and argues that this mode of embodiment/the homeless body emerges through discourses and practices of power.

18How are these concepts useful for history? These works are important to approaching the body historically, first, because they posit that there is no such thing as the body in general. Historically speaking, then, these theoretical insights are useful in problematizing, for example, the notion that a medieval body and a twenty-first century body can be conceived and approached by historians as one and in the same. Second, they posit that the body is something which becomes specific, emerging through material practice and representational discourse. In these conceptions the body is not a preconceived object to be sought out in history but is to be understood by historians as made, both within time and over time, through recursive experiential and representational constitutive processes.

2. Embodiment

  • 27 Canning, “Body as Method?,” 505.
  • 28 N. Katherine Hayles, “The Materiality of Informatics,” Configurations 1, no. 1 (1993): 154-55.
  • 29 Moss and Dyck, Women, Body, Illness, 55.

19In “The Body as Method?” Kathleen Canning suggests that the notion of embodiment, “a far less fixed and idealised concept than body,” might be useful for studying the body in history, in that it “encompasses moments of encounter and interpretation, agency and resistance.”27 Similarly, philosopher N. Katherine Hayles argues that “embodiment is contextual, enwebbed within the specifics of place, time, physiology and culture that together comprise enactment. Embodiment never coincides exactly with the ‘body’... Embodiment is the specific instantiation generated by the noise of difference. ”28 Echoing this definition, and clarifying the ways in which embodiment does not coincide exactly with the body, Moss and Dyck define embodiment as “those lived spaces where bodies are located conceptually and corporeally, metaphorically and concretely, discursively and materially, being simultaneously part of bodily forms and their social constructions.” They argue that embodiment is about being connected – temporally and historically – to other discursive and material entities – other bodies – in concrete practices, politically, culturally, socially, economically and spatially.29 Simply put, embodiment is the mode through which bodies are in the world.

  • 30 Abigail Bray and Claire Colebrook, “The Haunted Flesh: Corporeal Feminism and the Politics of (Dis (...)

20A slightly different, but equally significant perspective on embodiment is put forth by feminist cultural studies theorists Abigail Bray and Claire Colebrook who argue that “if the body is not a prediscursive matter that is then organized by representation, one might see the body as an event of expression... The body would be understood in terms of what [Gilles] Deleuze calls its becomings, connections, events and activities... Action is productive rather than representational. Accordingly one should ask what an action does rather than what it means.”30 The notions of embodiment and the body as an event of expression are almost but not quite synonymous. When held in tension these concepts can be helpful in studying “the body” in history. By employing “embodiment” and “the body as an event” it is possible to see bodies as actions and processes and to ask and explore what they do and what they did in the past. Rather than merely examining and ascribing meaning to the relatively fixed body, as Canning sees it, analyzing embodiment as a process of negotiation and constitution between the self and the world, and bodies as productive events whose “doings” might be scrutinized, is a far more dynamic and fruitful mode of historical investigation.

3. Space

  • 31 Barbara Duden, The Woman Beneath the Skin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), vi.
  • 32 Moss and Dyck, Women, Body, Illness, 54.
  • 33 Kawash, “Homeless Body,” 334.

21On a material level, Duden’s work contains an important conception of space. She asserts that the idea of body and space as separate is itself a historical construction: “The body and its environment have been consigned to opposing realms: on one side are the body, nature, and biology, stable and unchanging phenomena; on the other side are the social environment and history, realms of life subject to constant change. With the drawing of this boundary, the body was expelled from history.”31 Emphasizing the importance of conceptualizing bodies and spaces as one and the same, Moss and Dyck use the theoretical concept of “corporeal space,” which they define as “an interim state within spatiality, constitutive of the discursive and the material. Corporeal space comprises the living spaces of ‘bodies in context,’ claiming both the temporal and spatial specificity of bodies, giving rise to specific bodies and specific environments.”32 In their conception, bodies and spaces are made specific through their relationships in specific arrangements of the deployment of power. Illustrating this claim materially, Kawash notes that the “homeless body” emerges within the continuous negotiation between the functions and needs of the body (sleeping, eating, excreting, warmth, rest, safety) and the places the body can function. She argues that “the specificities of its functioning, its contours, and its conditions, are produced in and by its contingent and continuously contested emplacements.”33

  • 34 Elizabeth Grosz, Space, Time and Perversion (New York: Routledge, 1995), 89. She justifies her use (...)
  • 35 Kawash, “Homeless Body,” 330.

22Feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz articulates a different, yet equally important, conceptualization of space. According to Grosz, French sociologist Roger Callois has argued that “for a subject to take up a position as subject, he must be able to situate himself as being located in the space occupied by his body.”34 This might appear straightforward and it could potentially be argued that all bodies are located in the spaces which they occupy. Kawash, however, illuminates that this is not always so. For her, the relationship between bodies and spaces is a relationship of power: “the closure of society that is the aim of securing the public requires that a public space for the homeless body be denied.” She highlights the contradiction which results between the material body that certainly does occupy space and the denial of any place for such a body. The resolution to this contradiction, as Kawash notes, is enacted through “violent processes of containment, constriction and compression that seek not simply to exclude or control the homeless but rather to efface their presence altogether.”35

23As bodies in history certainly existed in space, and space shaped bodies, historians can use the work of these scholars to ask a series of significant historical questions. First, how did specific spaces – for example, the trenches of World War I, the nineteenth-century Canadian hospital, the early twentieth-century American college football field, the 1950s North American suburbs –“give rise to specific bodies?” How did bodies shape these environments? What new historical insights might emerge from undertaking such an analysis? Second, in what times and spaces have certain people – for example “slaves” in the early nineteenth century American South, First Nations peoples in colonial British Columbia, people charged as vagrants and vagabonds in seventeenth-century Europe - been dislocated from certain spaces? What were the implications of this dislocation? How were these bodies contained and constricted? What might this spatial and embodied examination reveal to the historian about larger historical processes such as slavery, colonialism, state formation, and the maintenance of social order?

4. Power

  • 36 Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993), (...)

24In order to understand the workings of power in shaping, enabling, and producing specific bodies in specific “pasts,” Judith Butler’s reading of Michel Foucault is indispensable. Drawing on his work, Butler asserts that relations of power are always productive. Importantly, she does not locate power as an external force that “acts on,” but argues “there is no power that acts, but only a reiterated acting that is power in its persistence and instability.” She sees power as a constitutive restraint which does not foreclose the possibility of agency. However, if agency is to be conceptualized within the relations of productive power, then power must also be viewed as a constitutive possibility for in every instant that something is restrained, something else is also made possible. If productive power is thus conceived, Butler’s notion of “agency as a reiterative or rearticulative practice, immanent to power, and not a relation of external opposition to power”36 is useful in attempting to access bodies in history and (their) modes of embodiment as always embedded within particular deployments of power through which they are constituted, and through which power is resisted, contested and thus is also constituted.

What is (Body) History?

  • 37 Adelson, Making Bodies, 23.

History does not happen to people; it is a function of the relationships among bodies, which are themselves historically constituted, and the concretized structures of social organization in which they interact.37

25Thus conceived history is undeniably a history of bodies and the ways in which they moved in the world, shaping it, and being shaped, as they went. History is the study of the relationships among bodies, their experiences and their representations. It is an examination of how people negotiated embodiment – the relationships between themselves, their bodies, and the world. It is an analysis of what bodies did and an interrogation of the implications, consequences, and products of these “doings.” History is the exploration of the ways in which bodies and spaces were made specific in particular times and places; it is an investigation of the violent exclusion of certain bodies from certain spaces and the processes and bodies through and by which this exclusion was executed. Finally, and critically, history is an examination of the workings of power and agency, acting on, and enacted by, historical subjects within and against institutions, political, social and economic forces, dominant discourse and practice, that is, within and against other historical bodies.


1 Kathleen Canning, “The Body as Method? Reflections on the Place of the Body in Gender History,” Gender and History 11, no. 3 (1999): 499.

2 Caroline Bynum, “Why All This Fuss About the Body? A Medievalists’ Perspective,” Critical Inquiry 22 (1995): 5.

3 Leslie Adelson, Making Bodies, Making History: Feminism and German Identity (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 1.

4 Ibid., 34.

5 Barbara Duden, “History Beneath the Skin,” Michigan Quarterly Review 30 (1991): 174.

6 Roy Porter, “The History of the Body,” in Peter Burke, ed.. New Perspectives on Historical Writing (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), 208.

7 Ibid., 207.

8 Ibid., 209.

9 Ibid., 211,224.

10 Duden, “History Beneath the Skin,” 175, 181.

11 For other material and experiential approaches to historicizing the body, see Ivan Illich, “A Plea for Body History,” Michigan Quarterly Review 26 (1987): 342-48, and Joy Parr, “Notes for a More Sensuous History of Twentieth-Century Canada: The Timely, The Tacit, and the Material Body,” Canadian Historical Review 84, no. 2 (2001): 720-45.

12 Robert Romanyshyn, “The Human Body as Historical Matter and Cultural Symptom,” in Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, ed., Giving the Body its Due (New York: State University of New York Press, 1992), 161, 168-69. Also see Sylvana Tomaselli, “The First Person, Descartes, Locke and the Mind-Body Dualism,” History of Science, 22, no. 2 (1984): 185-205, for a discussion of pre-Cartesian and Cartesian perspectives. Tomaselli outlines arguments made by scholars in which Descartes is credited for merely encoding what was already in thought-practice regarding the mind/body. Thus, Romanyshyn is not radical in situating the so-called mind/body split before Descartes.

13 Romanyshyn, “Human Body,” 162, 171.

14 Ibid., 172. In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Random House, 1995), Michel Foucault makes a similar argument. However, Foucault is concerned with the factory, the asylum, the school, the hospital, and, of course, the prison, as surveying and discipline-enforcing institutions. While Foucault argues that all of these institutions were interested in disciplining the body, Romanyshyn importantly distinguishes between the different bodies contained in different institutions.

15 Romanyshyn, “Human Body,” 169.

16 Porter, “History of the Body,” 226.

17 See Joan Hoff, “Gender as a Postmodern Category of Paralysis,” Women’s Studies International Forum 17, no. 4 (1994): 443-47, and Joan Sangster, “Re-Assessing Gender History and Women’s History in Canada,” Left History 3, no. 1 (1995): 109-121.

18 See Joy Parr, “Gender History and Historical Practice,” Canadian Historical Review, 76, no. 3 (1995): 354-76, and Joan Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” in Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin, eds., The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 1993), 397-415.

19 Parr, “Gender History,” 365.

20 Illich, “Plea for Body History,” 345. Emphasis in original.

21 Michel Feher, “Introduction,” in Michel Feher, ed., Fragments for a History of the Human Body (New York: Zone, 1989), 12.

22 Parr, “Notes for a More Sensuous History,” 729, 735-37. She gets this concept from the “experimenting contemporary Canadian composer” Murray Schafer. She argues that “historical bodies live in the presence of keynotes, the tonalities of their place and their time created by climate, geography and changing technology.”

23 Duden, “History Beneath the Skin,” 175, 176, 180, 183, 185, 187.

24 Adelson, Making Bodies, 20.

25 Pamela Moss and Isabel Dyck, Women, Body, Illness: Space and Identity in the Everyday Lives of Women with Chronic Illness (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002), 34, 37.

26 Samira Kawash, “The Homeless Body,” Public Culture 10, no. 2 (1998): 329.

27 Canning, “Body as Method?,” 505.

28 N. Katherine Hayles, “The Materiality of Informatics,” Configurations 1, no. 1 (1993): 154-55.

29 Moss and Dyck, Women, Body, Illness, 55.

30 Abigail Bray and Claire Colebrook, “The Haunted Flesh: Corporeal Feminism and the Politics of (Dis)Embodiment,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 24, no.1 (1998): 36, 57.

31 Barbara Duden, The Woman Beneath the Skin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), vi.

32 Moss and Dyck, Women, Body, Illness, 54.

33 Kawash, “Homeless Body,” 334.

34 Elizabeth Grosz, Space, Time and Perversion (New York: Routledge, 1995), 89. She justifies her use of “he” by stating that she uses it “advisedly; the relevance of the question of sexual difference to Callois’s account needs careful consideration if it is to be taken as relevant for women as well.” This is clearly an important question; however, due to space constraints, I will not address it here.

35 Kawash, “Homeless Body,” 330.

36 Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993), 9, 15, 109.

37 Adelson, Making Bodies, 23.


Holds an MA from the University of Victoria and will be pusuing a doctoral degree in History. Her areas of interest include the connections among bodies, spaces and gendered, classed, racialized and colonial relations of power and how each of these relates to the making of modern Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

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