Gender, Body and Selfhood Workshop 1 (November 2018)

On 9 November 2018 the Body Self and Family project hosted the first of two interlinked workshops on the theme of ‘Gender, Body and Selfhood’. The aim of these workshops is to explore the challenging questions that investigation of subjectivity and embodiment raise for researchers, including around how best to understand the interrelations of different aspects of identity, conceptualise the relationship between representation and experience, and negotiate the constraining effects of social structures on individual and collective agency.

The workshops explore how historians of different periods and specialisms, as well as scholars in other disciplines, approach these questions. Participants reflect on their own practices within the context of disciplinary assumptions, limitations, and opportunities. The sessions therefore encourage sharing of different approaches as well as debate across disciplinary boundaries, and in this way contribute to developing methodologies to probe fundamental questions for scholars of gender, body and self.

Workshop 1 included panels on identity and intersectionality (Laura Doan, University of Manchester; Isabel Davis, Birkbeck, University of London; Rochelle Rowe, UCL); qualitative and quantitative approaches across disciplines (Caroline Rusterholz, University of Cambridge; Sundari Anitha, University of Lincoln); and local, regional and transnational identities (Daisy Payling, University of Essex; Rebecca Jennings, UCL). I have attempted to gather my thoughts on recurrent themes in these panels and the discussions that followed; there is a lot more that could be said, and I would love to hear your thoughts.

Intersectionality One recurring question is whether ‘intersectionality’ and ‘identity’ are still useful terms. For some, uses of ‘intersectionality’ often end up emphasising divisions and a hierarchy of victimhood, whereas for others ‘intersectionality’ is still an essential concept to undo the erasures of the past. The embodied self can stand against these erasures – but we require highly nuanced understandings of the different possible types and layers of erasure in order to recapture what, exactly, might have been erased. Many of those present recalled instances in which they had interpreted the stories of their subjects/ participants using a particular framework, only to later realise – either in dialogue with a participant, or on subsequent re-reading of source material – that the initial reading had little in common with the teller’s own interpretation of events, and had closed off other avenues of interpretation. Life history can allow us to escape these fixities and to think about how identities change over time, but only if we are sufficiently open to starting with the life itself, rather than our idea of what that life was or meant – how can we achieve that openness while acknowledging the quest for meaning that drives our research?

Indeterminacy Indeterminacy stands in an odd relation to ‘identity’ and ‘intersectionality’. On the one hand, the concept exists as a way of expressing that which cannot be nailed down, and a means of emphasising the fluid nature of experience. On the other hand, it is a term that has attained prominence within certain fields of scholarship precisely as a result of concerns with ‘identity’. Its origins will always lie within it, and perhaps should not be transcended; what looks to one person like acknowledging complexity is to another the denial of rallying points necessary for political action. Uncertainty can be liberating and/or frustrating. But as scholars, how can we capture that state of being/ not being, knowing/ not knowing? The nature of articulation is to pin down meaning, and we often perceive this as ‘bringing to light’ – but what if it constitutes a reduction, a narrowing down, of experience? Is the only alternative not to analyse? Suggested alternatives included representing via the visual rather than text, or analysing actions rather than words – both exciting possibilities for scholarship, but does this simply displace the site of articulation from the thing itself to its representation, rather than avoid the language trap entirely? If so, then how to we bridge the gap between our tactical reasons for trying to pin down what we study, and the messiness of lived experience? Certainly, we need to consider whether current debates about indeterminacy would have made much sense to people in the past, and whether we are now more or less content with indeterminacy than other peoples may have been.

Subjectivity In some disciplines, ‘subjectivity’ is already yesterday’s buzzword; in others, it is still a maligned threat to be staved off at all costs. Those disciplines threatened by subjectivity usually simultaneously deny the subjective and embodied experience of the researcher, and implicitly hold up the white, male, heterosexual, middle-class scholar as the only researcher able to be neutral – the very embodiment of neutrality, in fact. One perverse result of this emphasis is that these disciplines worship biography, while denying the value of autobiography. Against these claims, the insertion of the self into research becomes both a radical act, and an ethical necessity. Those methodologies that involve a face-to-face relationship might seem to necessitate this insertion of the self, but it remains easy to write the self out of the published research. What, then, does it mean to insist on the self? Is this a continuation of the process of recognition that often leads people to become participants in research – ‘I will participate, because you are like me, and can help to tell my story’? What kinds of recognition are at stake here? Finally, how should historians who work with sources produced by the long-dead try to understand subjectivity?

Transhistoricism If we shift our focus to embodied experience, this raises the possibility that elements of some experiences – (un)pregnancy, desire, grief, trauma – remain substantially the same over time, because they are lived through the body as much as interpreted by the mind. As a historian I am troubled by this possibility because for decades one of my core beliefs – personal as much as professional – is that context determines who and what we are and how we can think and feel, and therefore that people in different times inevitably experience superficially similar events in different ways. Like many others before me, I first led questioned this tenet because of personal (embodied) experience, but I have found it difficult to know how to negotiate this questioning in my professional activities. I found the suggestion that there are different ‘textures’ of transhistorical experience intriguing – this is one of the many areas I would like to explore further at our next workshop.

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