Objects, Bodies, and Feelings: A Roundtable Discussion on Material Culture and the History of Emotions and Affects

AHA Session 268
Monday, January 6, 2020: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Columbus Circle (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Cathleen M. Giustino, Auburn University
Leora Auslander, University of Chicago
John E. Gagné, University of Sydney
Eva Giloi, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Brandon Schechter, New York University
Maruška Svašek, Queen’s University Belfast

Session Abstract

In recent years scholars have devoted attention to two “turns” in history – the material turn and the emotional turn. This roundtable brings together an international, interdisciplinary group of researchers, in order to discuss both of these newer directions in history and explore material culture as one path for the study of emotions and affects in the past. Material objects and appreciation of the processes of production, consumption, alteration and destruction that give them meaning offer access to the experiences of peoples with whom we cannot directly interact. They provide evidence about individual feelings and collective moods that complement, substantiate and go beyond expressive words and ambiguous silences found in written sources. They help us to specify emotions, including distinguishing them from affects and senses, and to evaluate embodiment and the somatic (the non-representational) as causal forces in the past. Bonds to objects are important for emotions and affects. Study of the passing down of things across generations and the damage to or loss of things due to violent upheaval and the passage of time – with attention to materiality – can help us study continuity and change in these bonds and associated feelings over time. Very importantly, the study of emotions and affects in the past through object analysis can advance knowledge about the social construction and politics of feelings and deepen insight into the role of bodily norms and responses in the exercise of power.

The five scholars on this roundtable will each devote up to ten minutes to presenting some of their recent research in relation to the study of material culture and emotions, leaving 30-40 minutes for audience discussion. John Gagné will discuss prosthetic mechanical hands from early modern Europe and the problem of brokenness for the study of the past, including the history of trauma. Eva Giloi will explore royal “relics” that had intimate contact with the bodies of 19th-century Prussian kings and the results of the externalization of monarchs’ interiors for the civilizing process and power. Brandon Schechter will examine the Soviet looting of German property during World War II and how seized objects could be both embodiments of hatred of the enemy and love of family. Maruška Svašek will look at monuments in Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic to argue that the concept of “affective stirrings” is useful for investigating histories of material production and destruction in times of political change. Leora Auslander will focus on Jewish exiles from Germany during the Third Reich and economic migrants in postwar Germany to analyze the emotional work done by things and how museums can deepen our understanding of that process. The roundtable welcomes audience members from both academic and public history, including preservation and museum studies.

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