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Biomedicine in museums

Resumé of Adam Bencard's dissertation 'History in the Flesh'

By February 11, 2008No Comments

Here’s the resumé of Adam’s PhD-dissertation ‘History in the flesh – investigating the historicized body’. For further info about the public defence on Friday 15 February, se here.

Adam Bencard

During the 1980’s the humanities in general, including the historical sciences, saw the rise of self-proclaimed and self-conscious literature on the body in all its variations, a trend which has continued with near unabated strength up through the 1990’s and into the new millennium. The body, during the last 25 years, has been pushed to the forefront and has been problematised, destabilised and transformed into a central analytical category. First and foremost, the moment of the body in academia has pre-eminently been a moment of historicizing the body, of placing history into where before there was only biology.

This thesis investigates this interest in the body through an analysis of what I call the discursive figure of the historicized body. The historicized body is not as such a clearly defined concept or a sharply delineated idea; it is more of a style, an idea, which has been expressed in many ways and in countless variations. The historicized body has become an entrenched discursive figure, a predominant motif or symbol for historical engagement with the body and it remains the dominant mode of thinking about the body in history, despite criticisms levelled against it. This thesis is, in essence, an investigation of this discursive figure, its genealogy, development and problematization.

The thesis falls in four chapters. The first chapter examines various classical theories across sociology, anthropology, history and philosophy. This is done in order to show important trends that led to the more recent surge in writing about bodies, their specific content and positions on the body. The body has been involved in a series of discussions in most of the twentieth century: the relationship between self and society, the problem of order, the influence of culture on human behaviour, and the control and discipline of the body and desire. The second chapter is a reading of perhaps the most prominent and emblematic work in the new cultural history of the body, namely historian Thomas Laqueur’s influential Making Sex – Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, published in 1990. In chapter I will situate Laqueur’s work historiographically and discuss some of the criticisms that have been levelled at his approach.

The third chapter examines a discussion raised by Laqueur’s work, namely that of lived experience in history and its possible historiographical functions. The stress on the discursive construction of bodies and sexuality that is apparent in Laqueur’s work leaves, to some degree, the material and experiential contexts of sexuality largely unexplored. This problem is explored through a juxtaposition of Judith Butler’s linguistically-oriented philosophy of the body and the idea of the embodied person as expressed by Lakoff, Johnson and Merleau-Ponty. I then locate this problem in the works of the historian of the body Barbara Duden and her ideas about historical somatology.

The fourth chapter of the thesis discusses a possible way in which the study of the body in history might be opened towards more direct understandings of embodiment. This is done by a reading of the notion of presence as presented by philosopher and psychologist Eelco Runia, and literary theorist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. This notion of presence presents a possible way of refiguring the study of the body in history which embraces the inability of language to fully frame our interaction with reality and the importance of examining the unspoken, the unconscious, the sensual, the affective, the lived and the felt “stuff” of the body in history. As Runia points out, presence is a result of our biographies, of history within the flesh. Presence does not transcend history, it is history; history as it works upon us, within and without language, both as individuals and as societies. Presence, then, offers a possible way of speaking about, examining and appropriating into the study of history the fleshy experience of history and the historical experience of fleshiness.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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