Body History

Roy Porter

  • The Body and the French Revolution: Sex, Class and Political Culture by Dorinda Outram
    Yale, 197 pp, £22.00, May 1989, ISBN 0 300 04436 4
  • Victorian Suicide: Mad Crimes and Sad Histories by Barbara Gates
    Princeton, 190 pp, £19.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 691 09437 3
  • Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine between the 18th and 20th Centuries by Ludmilla Jordanova
    Harvester, 224 pp, £19.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 7450 0332 X
  • Family, Love and Work in the Lives of Victorian Gentlewomen by Jeanne Peterson
    Indiana, 241 pp, $39.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 253 20509 3

Suddenly, everyone seems to be writing about the body, and eyebrows are being raised. ‘What sort of history is the history of the body?’ asks Peter Biller in a recent review, voicing scepticism about the genre itself: even ‘a moderate example of body history’, he concludes, ‘can principally incarnate a certain blindness towards the past.’ Do academics feel similarly hesitant about studying more cerebral things – ideas, for example? Cold-water treatment of this kind merely proves the point historians of the body are making. We have lived too long within our Platonic, Pauline and Cartesian prejudices; we value the mind (no complaint about that), but deny the flesh, so that we no longer even entertain its history.

Things are changing. Foucault, feminism, New Historicism, Aids: each in its own way has provoked questions about how people conceive and treat their bodies, how their bodies were treated (appropriated, controlled, violated) in earlier times. Indeed, it is no accident that all of these books are by female scholars. Yet, with the lessons of ‘women’s studies’ in mind, their authors aim to avoid self-immolation within yet another specialist ghetto. Body history must be part of big history. It must display the body as the inexhaustible generator of representations for society at large, and as a crossroads of power, the new pineal gland mediating between personal and public, private and political.

The body incarnates the self in public. An upheaval such as the French Revolution, with its fundamental redefinition of the ‘body politic’, necessarily raised questions about the body in politics: how were liberté, égalité and fraternité to be incorporated in civic action, in the people under arms, in the virtuous family, in health and welfare? Not the least tragedy of that revolution, Dorinda Outram argues, was that, having guillotined the ‘king’s body’ and profaned the corpus christi, it failed to invent public spaces for republican bodies. Above all, this was because successive revolutionary cadres were iron-clad within a ‘male language of virtue’, inherited from Classical Stoicism and transmitted through civic humanism. Dominant revolutionary rhetoric privileged honour, truth, duty, la patrie and other moral absolutes, and declared its disdain for the frailties of the flesh. It taught men to kill heroically, and to die nobly (Outram’s finest chapter dissects Senecan revolutionary suicide). Yet this sanguinary code, despite its shining exempla and imperatives, proved singularly inept for helping le peuple to live well together. In a word, new revolutionism was but old machismo writ large.

As such, its lasting influence has been deplorable. Not just because – though this is bad enough – liberationist movements ever since have doomed themselves to repeating macho sloganisings redolent of the death-wish (will Trotskyite cells prove the last habitat of male chauvinism?). More seriously, the Revolution failed to equip the modern state with a working civics for the secularised body; and the capitalist state has in consequence been allowed to people itself with what Norbert Elias called homo clausus: the privatised bourgeois individual, self-excluded from a public life. Such principled passivity, Outram contends, has permitted that state encroachment upon the body which Foucault (himself the obsequist of the ‘death of the person’) discovered in the rise of the panoptic disciplines of control. Ultimately, it can offer no resistance to Fascism’s short way with the body: contempt, crucifixion and dismemberment. All that is left for the body to do in late capitalism, so runs the Frankfurtian creed, is to consume, and be consumed, in orgies of repressive desublimation.

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