Corporeal Investigations: Disciplining Bodies and Managing Difference at the Fin de Siècle

AHA Session 147
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
New York Ballroom East (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Philippa Levine, University of Texas at Austin
The Audience

Session Abstract

At the turn of the twentieth century, bodies functioned as crucial sites to preserve the ever-uncertain boundaries of Europe’s social order, marked as it was by classed, gendered, and racialized distinctions both at home and in the colonies. This extensive management of bodies across the globe, however, faced difficulties as bodies, alongside the manifold racial, gendered, and sexual ambivalences they entailed, repudiated such conscription, rendering the struggle to hold meaning in place an uneven one (Scott 2012).

The persistent articulation of embodied differences produced growing anxieties at the fin-de-siècle about the instability of European “progress” and modernity’s evolutionary promises. Not only had industrial society seemingly accelerated physical debilitation (expressed in social-scientific concerns about degeneration, nervousness, or the “abnormal”), but encounters with bodily difference across the globe resisted definitive mapping, requiring constant maintenance from colonial regimes.

This panel explores the ambiguous effects of a range of attempts to discipline bodies in Europe and abroad, analyzing the interplay between understandings of internal and external difference in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Building on literature that has viewed bodies as constitutive components of national identities in Europe while also being “sites through which imperial and colonial power was imagined and exercised,” (Ballantyne and Burton 2014, 6), this panel analyzes a series of questions: How did the management and exclusion of bodies contribute to the negotiation and formation of nationhood? What techniques and regulatory mechanisms were deployed to control and mange varied bodies? Where did bodies that refused national or colonial requirements become situated? How did the refashioning of the body through new classificatory paradigms reconfigure prior forms of embodiment?

We aim to answer these questions by considering how race, sexuality, and gender confounded the desire for a tightly-woven classificatory system. Our purpose is twofold: to test new modes of inquiry concerning the body as well as invite conversations across national and imperial boundaries in order to reflect on the corresponding and divergent methods of studying the body. Each of the papers, therefore, examines a different geographic site from which bodily integrity came to be imagined and challenged, ranging from French medical understandings of confidentiality, the emergence of mixed-sex swimming and nudism in Germany, the deployment of dum-dum bullets by the British in their colonies, and European spiritualist encounters in Punjab. Together, these approaches contribute to ongoing conversations in the field, including exploring the global dimension of the fin-de-siècle (Saler 2014), by bringing together diverse voices from intersecting sites of study.

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