Back to body history. Somebody I know asked me talk about use of the body as category of historical thought, upsides and downsides. Here’s a start, just some jottings.

The body is a useful category for the historical analysis of gender relations.

It can be tempting to dismiss the body as a category of historical analysis for two reasons. On the one hand, all humans have bodies. As such, “body history” could expand to a vanishing point, including so much that it explains nothing. On the other hand, it is easy to think of the use of the body as a category as appealing to phenomena which are not social, historical, or relational. In that case, body history would be at best something like natural history or a type of science, and at worst would be a return to biological determinism.

With regard to the first possible criticism, that body history would include the history of all humanity, the same could be said of gender history. As far as we know, all current and past humans have/had a gender. This does not mean gender is not a useful category of analysis. Just as gender history does not simply say “look, these people had gender!” body history does not simply say “look, bodies!” Gender history takes gender as both a category of interpretation for historians and an object of study, looking at how gender relations worked and were constructed in different ways in different times and places. Similarly, body history take the body as category of analysis and object of study, treating bodies as heterogeneous. This touches on the second possible criticism. While it is clearly possible to treat bodies as ahistorical and non-relational, body history does not have to do so. Again, there is a clear parallel with gender. Many people take gender as natural and unchanging. Gender history undermines that understanding by showing that gender is historically contingent, variable, and social. Body history can do the same. It is not immediately clear, however, that the body is a relationship in the way that gender is.

There are several ways to consider the body as a relationship. First, perspectivally, there’s the body as object in the management of persons (the consumption of bodies in workplaces both slowly over time and suddenly via workplace accidents, and the policing of people’s bodies in a variety of way for a variety of reasons), and the body as a part of people’s self-making (use of one’s body and its capabilities). Both of these include experiential components – such as the feeling and meaning of pleasure and pain – and other components like policies and practices. There is also the relationship of oneself to one’s own body. This includes the body as obstacle to self-fulfillment (this includes the assignment of meaning and social position based on views of bodily characteristics, in relation to a variety of social hierarchies; some examples – race, ability/disability, body type, gender/sex) and as an object to be altered in the (re)making of oneself (practices including exercising, straightening or curling hair, altering skin color, tattooing, and surgical alteration of the body). In all of these, the body is a relational category.

Note to self – previous posts somewhat related: