Mindful Bodies: Intimate Histories of Modern Thought

AHA Session 83
Friday, January 4, 2019: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Hancock Parlor (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Leigh Eric Schmidt, Washington University in St. Louis
An Emotional History of Capitalism
Susan J. Matt, Weber State University
In Muddy Squalor: Spirit and Body in the Diary of a Horse Soldier
Warren Breckman, University of Pennsylvania
Thinking through the Body in the 20th-Century United States
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Leigh Eric Schmidt, Washington University in St. Louis

Session Abstract

This panel seeks a conversation about researching and writing histories of intellectual embodiment. It brings together the concerns of intellectual history, history of the body and sexuality, history of emotions, and religious studies –fields not typically in sustained conversation with one another—in order to examine not only histories of ideas about the body, but also, and more centrally, histories of human bodies as means of intellectual inquiry and production.

There is nothing particularly revelatory about philosopher Richard Shusterman’s claim that historical actors’ bodies were the “fundamental, indispensable instrument or medium through which [they] perceive[d], act[ed], and live[d]” their lives on planet earth.[1] And yet a survey of even the most sophisticated and cutting-edge history of ideas and intellectual movements reveals how they often render thinkers’ own embodiment invisible in their studies. Though the panelists are in no way hostile to intellectual histories that focus on high-level thought (indeed some of us work in this register ourselves), we are interested in accessing ideas and intellectual preoccupations that moved in mainstream and even marginalized historical discourses. While plenty of thinkers whom historian of science Steven Shapin refers to as “disembodied truth-lovers” sought ascetic discipline and social disengagement, the historical figures we will discuss on the panel recognized their own embodiment and lived experience as crucially connected to their intellectual and moral commitments.

Examining these discourses requires that we take what intellectual historian Sarah Igo has called a “free-range” approach to the study of ideas. This means retracing their sites of production, whether they be an office in an insurance firm, the battlefields of the Western Front, a stage set for a pornographic movie, or a zafu meditation cushion. Paying attention to alternate ways of knowing thus promises to bring historians to unexpected locations where historical actors encountered new ideas and produced new knowledge of their own.

Susan Matt’s paper on the history of capitalist emotions, Warren Breckman’s on the diaries of a cavalryman in the First World War, Jane Kamensky’s on an adult filmmaker and feminist, and Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s on American wisdom literature all aim to raise historical, historiographical, and methodological questions about intellectual embodiment. Leigh Eric Schmidt joins the conversation as commentator, bringing his expertise in religious studies and cultural and intellectual history to explore the variety of ways scholarly research can yield intimate histories of mindful bodies.

Our papers and Schmidt’s comments will be kept to 10 minutes each, so as to maximize audience participation and panelists’ discussion with one another.

[1] Richard Shusterman, Thinking Through the Body: Essays in Somaesthetics (Cambridge, 2012), x.

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