Converging on the Body: Embodiment, Experience, and Performance in the German-Speaking World

AHA Session 158
Central European History Society 8
Friday, January 6, 2017: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Governor's Square 14 (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Concourse Level)
Kathleen M. Canning, University of Michigan
Edward R. Dickinson, University of California, Davis

Session Abstract

Since the publication of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, scholars across the disciplines have sought to better understand the discursive construction of the modern body that, as Kathleen Canning observes, “constitutes an intriguing point at which discourses and everyday experiences converge.” Histories of embodiment, which consider the body as a site shaped as much by discourse as experience, have greatly expanded our understanding of a diverse range of historical topics – from histories of science, medicine, and sexuality, to histories of the arts, politics, society, and culture. In this panel, we seek to build on this literature by exploring embodiment as a site of the experience of time, which engaged in twentieth century debates over memory, the concept of progress, and the philosophy of history. 

Taking the annual theme as its departure, this panel seeks to explore this point of convergence by looking to embodiment. Paper one examines efforts by modern dancers in Germany from 1910 to 1914 to link embodied expression to contemporary debates about historicism and social reform. Comparing the example of modern dance pedagogy and performance in the social democratic garden city of Hellerau (Dresden) and in the anarchist artist’s utopian retreat of Ascona (Switzerland), it argues that movement onstage, in the classroom, and in everyday life was the central axis against which progressive accounts of history and social change were marked and measured. The second paper considers the emergence in the 1910s and 1920s of Vienna’s New Woman (die neue Wienerin), tracing the figure’s origins and proliferation in pre-war Vienna on the silver screen. The paper draws from personal letters and diaries, newspapers, magazines, film, and etiquette books to reconstruct a normative bourgeois femininity; it argues that the New Woman’s embodied femininity was a radical departure from earlier historical models, insofar as it performed a physically expansive femininity that up to WWI had been articulated only by sex workers and stage performers. The final paper centers on the personal libraries of criminologist Rüdiger Lautmann and Dutch sociologist Gert Hekma, two of the first social scientists to publish on gay and lesbian themes in the 1970s. Libraries from these scholars were more than just a collection of books: they were repositories of information in an age when queer-themed collections were not considered suitable for institutional libraries, and they frequently served as community archives, places of refuge, conversation, and of course, desire, in a still hostile age. Analyzing the issue of queer kinship, this paper asks how artistic re-rendering might create new opportunities for an affective and bodily engagement with the receding past, and asks how aesthetic re-rendering through sound functions as historical production. Taken together, these three papers draw attention to embodiment as a site where temporalities and concepts of history were constructed and contested.

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