The body came to be taken seriously as a topic of cultural history during the “corporeal” or “bodily” turn in the 1980s and 1990s. Soon, however, critique was raised against these studies’ conceptualization of the body as discursively shaped and socially disciplined: individual bodily agency and feeling were felt to be absent in the idea of the material body. This article critically analyzes new approaches in the field of body history, particularly the so-called “material turn”. It argues that the material turn, especially in the guise of praxiography, has a lot to offer historians of the body, such as more attention to material practices, to different kinds of actors and a more open eye to encounters. Potential problems of praxiographical analyses of the body in history include the complicated relationship between discourses and practices and the neglect of the political and feminist potential of deconstructive discourse analyses. However, a focus on the relationship between practices of knowledge production and the representation of the body may also provide new ways of opening up historical power relations.The authors state that
In the 1980s and 1990s a “corporeal” or “bodily” turn took place in sociology and feminist philosophy. The body came to be taken seriously as object of study, resulting in studies on the history of obesity, anorexia, disability, menstruation, genitalia, beauty, sports, hygiene, the senses, the regulation of racial bodies and many more body-related topics [1–7]. In recent years, several multi-volume overviews of body history have been published [8–11]. The field of body history grew out of the history of medicine, gender and sexuality and was strongly influenced by the cultural turn. No longer considered a timeless biological entity, the body came to be seen as historically variable and shaped by culture, language and ideology. Especially, Michel Foucault’s and Judith Butler’s methodology of discursive constructionism found its way into historical studies of the body. Soon, however, critique was raised against these studies’ conceptualization of the body as discursively shaped and socially disciplined. This critique focused on the absence of individual bodily agency and of feeling in the notion of the material body and aimed to look beyond discursive constructionism, without reverting to older biologist concepts. The proposed answers differed widely: psychoanalysis, praxiography, neo-essentialism and other approaches were put forward . In this article, we aim to critically analyze one of these new approaches in the field of body history, i.e., praxiography, which can be regarded as part of the so-called “material turn”, also named neo or new materialism. We explore what praxiography has to offer to historians of the body: It seems to pay more attention to material practices, to different kinds of actors and purports to have a more open eye to encounters (between bodies, objects, experts, and techniques). However, these new approaches also potentially contain a number of problems. Political critique, for instance, a feature that was strongly present in the cultural-historical approach of the body popular in the 1990s, at first sight seems to be absent. We hope to stimulate discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of the material turn’s key features amongst historians of the body. ...
Before sketching neo-materialist approaches to body history, we will first outline the rise of body history, with a particular emphasis on methodology and its accompanying problems. Although the body had not been completely absent in historical writing before the cultural turn, it was only on the wings of the latter that the corporeal came to be taken seriously as a field of study in the humanities, partly because the cultural turn diverged from a more traditional intellectual history, which privileged the mind over the body . Before the cultural turn, in the first half of the twentieth century, historical sociologist Norbert Elias had devoted much attention to the disciplining of the body in early modern court cultures [14,15]. The Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bahktin put the material meanings of the body center stage in his analysis of the work of the French Renaissance writer François Rabelais [16,17]. In cultural anthropology, the body had always been a serious topic of interest, and especially the symbolical anthropology of Mary Douglas, which regarded bodily boundaries as representative of ideas concerning purity, would be very influential in the new histories of the body produced as part of the cultural and performative turn . The work of Michel Foucault, particularly his book on modern punishment, in which he saw the modern body as an object of new forms of disciplinary power, yet also as productive of those new forms, has been seen as foundational to the bodily turn [19,20].
The first overview of this new branch of cultural history was presented by historian Roy Porter, who warned from the start that too much theorizing over the body would lead to anachronism. Advocating attention to empirical research, Porter also feared that too much attention was being paid to the disciplining of past bodies, and thus to Foucauldian approaches. In his 2001 revision of his 1991 chapter, Porter noted “the domain in which writing about the history of the body has skyrocketed most stupendously: the theoretical dimension. Drawing on critical theory, postmodernism, post-Foucauldianism, and other ‘-isms’ embodying the linguistic turn, and also on feminist, gender, gay and lesbian philosophy, and much else besides, a challenging corpus of body theory now exists; yet it is one which is all too often historically dogmatic or deficient. The squaring of the empirical and the theoretical remains to be done.” (, p. 253).
Porter exemplifies the aversion of historians to the use of theory and their need for empirical evidence. One historical sub-field less averse to theory is gender history. It is from this field that most of the histories of the body have grown. The most influential work on the gendered body in the past has been the book by Thomas Laqueur Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud . Using mostly images in medical textbooks as sources, Laqueur argued that bodily sex differences, which he termed the “two-sex model”, in which men and women had completely different genitalia and other body parts, were only perceived in the eighteenth century, when Enlightenment ideas on the equality of the sexes threatened male privilege. Laqueur’s book is generally regarded as an important application of social constructionism to the body (in distinction to the concept of gender, which was approached from this angle from the start). Laqueur underlined how making, but also simply seeing bodily gender differences depended on political and social aims. It is important to keep in mind how social constructionism of the body has always been particularly fertile in regard to gender. The influence of gender history on body history also received some critique from feminist historians. In an article first published in 1999, Kathleen Canning argued that “‘body’ remains a largely unexplicated and undertheorised historical concept” (, p. 499). Canning noted that the turn from women’s to gender history left the body tainted with essentialism, a blank slate upon which gender ideologies were written. Feminist historians were interested in deconstructing those ideologies, but not particularly in the body that was targeted by these (, p. 501). Canning saw the prominence of the discursive body in gender history, at the cost of the “body as experience”, yet also signaled studies in which bodies were excessively material and undertheorized. She also pointed out, however, that these symbolic bodies remained “immaterial/dematerialised” and indicated two explanations for the embrace of the discursive body: the work of Michel Foucault and a more practical reason, that is the availability of sources that chart the discursive construction of gendered bodies, and the lack of sources dealing with the body “as a site of experience, memory, or subjectivity”. Canning called for “locating bodies spatially, nationally, and as inscribed by ethnicity and race”, underlining the importance of empirical evidence and historical specificity (, pp. 501–04).
The work of Michel Foucault and of gender theorist Judith Butler has indeed been very influential. Butler’s emphasis on cultural norms like the “heterosexual matrix”, which constitute (gendered) bodies discursively, has mostly been applied to the deconstruction of these norms, and the extent of agency this leaves us with has been heavily debated [23,24]. Although this notion of the discursive construction of the body has been used by many historians, it has to be kept in mind that several historians did attempt to reconstruct corporeal experiences in the past. Best known among these is the German historian Barbara Duden, whose The Woman beneath the Skin. A Doctor’s Patients in Eighteenth-Century Germany (originally published as Geschichte unter der Haut: Ein Eisenacher Arzt und seine Patientinnen um 1730 in 1987) placed eighteenth-century female patients’ experience of their own bodies centre stage . Duden described a world in which the body, which was thought to contain continuous motions or a “flux”, was not considered as an object clearly separated from its environment. These eighteenth-century German women and their doctor used a language completely different from the discourse framing the modern body as an isolated object of medical examination. Conspicuously, rare studies into historical corporeal understanding, like Duden’s, were nearly always medical histories, based on egodocuments like letters, from which some personal experience, however entwined in cultural discourses, could be retrieved . Nevertheless, these studies remained exceptions, the majority of body historiography being devoted to deconstructing medical discourse. To theorize the body as site of experience, some historians resorted to psychoanalytical approaches. Lyndal Roper described an “economy of bodily fluids” in early modern witchcraft beliefs, which regarded old women as sucking on the bodily fluids of others. Roper, using psychoanalytic categories, argued that young mothers projected their own confusing emotions onto older lying-in maids, whom they accused of witchcraft. These emotions were highly sensitive to the manipulation of the body . Other historians were influenced by feminist philosophers who tried to find new ways of perceiving the body, like Moira Gatens’ notion of the “imaginary body”, which stressed the psychical significance of various zones of the body, while trying to bridge the gulf between discursive and material bodies . Elizabeth Grosz, as well, started from psychoanalytical notions while formulating her notion of “corporeal feminism”. Grosz claimed that the body can never be fully disciplined or described by discourse and underlined the agency of the body in her notion of “counter-strategic reinscription” (, p. 64).
Grosz, like feminist Iris Marion-Young, built upon phenomenology in accounting for women’s experiences. From this perspective, body, self and world become entangled in situated, corporeal experiences. Phenomenological approaches thus already highlighted the material aspect of bodily experience and the difficulty of separating notions of “the natural” and “the social” [22,30–32]. Similarly, the experiential and social aspects of the body were emphasized by Leslie Adelson’s notion of embodiment, who defined it as a process “of making and doing the work of bodies—of becoming a body in social space.” (, p. 504). In short, the body as a site of experience was emphasized by psychoanalytic and phenomenological approaches, including attention to the material and social aspects of the body, as well as agency and resistance. These approaches, however, were not applied very often by historians.
Although body history has become an accepted part of the field of social and cultural history, historians still seem to be struggling with some of the methodological and theoretical problems that surfaced in the 1990s. For example, Ivan Crozier, in his 2010 introduction to the sixth volume of A Cultural History of the Human Body, on the body in the modern age, leans on the theoretical approaches of Foucault and Butler uncritically. He also makes use of Julia Kristeva’s term “abjection” and Mary Douglas’ “matter out of place”. For Crozier, the discursive constructionist approach is less of a problem than for other historians and he combines it with insights from anthropology and psychoanalysis. In addition, he couples a general plea for a socio-historical embeddedness to a seemingly self-evident, yet often neglected, attention to an always changeable body. Defining bodies as “performed social institutions”, whose agency is constrained by “various techniques of training, practice, and sanctioning”, Crozier proposes to study bodies in action and in a socio-cultural and historical context, while at the same time mediated through a variety of discourses and arrangements of power . Crozier also points to the “underdetermined character of the corporeal”, the idea that the same body changes according to locale: “the body is not used the same way when it is sick, during sex, as it ages, for pleasure, for work, for sport, or when it is represented.” (, pp. 21–22). Thus, the problem of a one-sided emphasis on discursive construction and discipline, neglecting individual experience and agency, does not surface in Crozier’s account. However, a call for a more open-ended view of the changeable body, including more attention to historically changing places, echoes Canning’s plea for more historical specificity (, p. 504).
In a second recent overview of “the somatic turn”, Roger Cooter is more critical of the “the representational approach”, locating the problem in several scholars’ acceptance of the body “only as a representation”. One important new direction in the history of the body Cooter signals is a return to biological essentialism, influenced by neuroscience and the cognitive turn . Importantly, Cooter notes the relevance of what he terms the “new breed of essentialisms” to the history of the body. However, he seems to regard these only as a threat to a balanced history of the body, not as productive methodologies. Moreover, as we will show below, some important new approaches, like the practice turn and praxiography, cannot be grouped so easily under the heading of “essentialism”.
To conclude, in the past 20 years, social and discursive constructionist approaches to the body have been very influential, but have also come under attack, due to their presumed lack of attention to individual corporeal experience, which is often taken to mean a neglect of agency. For historians, this critique is paired to a call for using more empirical sources. Psychoanalytical and phenomenological approaches that do underline bodily experience have had little impact on history writing. On the one hand, a historical picture of the material body is called for (including historical locality and changeability), on the other hand “essentialism”, implying a return to a biological, non-historically specific body, is feared. In the remainder of this article, we explore what the application of praxiography to body history implies for these questions in regard to the material, experiencing body as stated in historical sources.