Emotional Bodies in Context, a Symposium at The University of Adelaide 

By Meagan Nattrass, The University of Adelaide

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the body as ‘the physical structure, including the bones, flesh, and organs, of a person or an animal,’ yet the Emotional Bodies in Context symposium recognised the importance of considering the body as social, emotional and performative.[i]

On Friday 12 April, scholars gathered at The University of Adelaide to consider the interconnections between bodies, emotions and the external factors that shape belief and understanding about them, and how in turn this informs the embodiment of feeling. The symposium attracted a wide range of academic researchers and postgraduate students from diverse backgrounds and disciplines resulting in a thought-provoking and worthwhile day. At its core, the day showcased the benefits of inter-disciplinary collaboration.

Carciature of a man-midwife as a split figure, left side female, right side male
Carciature of a man-midwife as a split figure, left side female, right side male. Wellcome Collection. CC BY

The keynote was delivered by cultural historian, Professor Karen Harvey, from the University of Birmingham. Harvey emphasised the significance of the body in her current research on the correspondence networks of middle-class families in the eighteenth century. Harvey demonstrated that for her correspondents the body was indistinguishable from the emotional and biological being. Emotion was physically embodied and could not be separated from the body. Harvey also noted the change in cultural constructions of the physical, biological and material body over time, arguing that the cultural shift from humoral to neurological and corporeal concepts of the body altered the way writers described their bodies, health and wellbeing. Harvey demonstrated that the letter was a material proxy for sharing wellbeing and argued that health in these contexts were intrinsically social.

Dr Leanne Downing, a senior lecturer of public health at La Trobe University, brought us into the present by analysing discourses of the body in different media contexts. Downing suggested that, similar to Harvey’s discussion of the body in letter writing, women in virtual spaces such as blogs are able to share their bodily experiences, furthering the idea that health is intrinsically social. Downing used the Fairfax (Nine) ‘Essential Baby©’ Blog as a case study of an online affective atmosphere that allowed the discussion of different bodily states and emotions that are not conventionally talked about in traditional medical spaces. In particular, the blog provided women with the opportunity to better understand their own body by sharing their experiences with others in a medium outside of a traditional medical setting, which were not equipped to cater for their experiences. Downing also emphasised the need to acknowledge the role of corporations in creating what she termed, “dedicated feeling spaces” where emotions that are non-existent in medical dialogue can be expressed.

Dr Keagan Brewer from the University of Sydney discussed medieval monstrosity in Gerald of Wales’s text, The Topography of Ireland (Topographia Hibernica), written following his visit to Ireland in the 1180s. The debate over Gerald’s work, evident in the author’s revisions of it over the following decades, revealed the body as a contentious site. Brewer demonstrated how discussion of wondrous hybrid bodies was altered by different cultural and social contexts.

Addressing a modern incidence of ‘monstrosity’, Elise Westin from The University of Adelaide considered cannibalism during the Ukrainian famine in the 1930s. Westin discussed the role of affect in Miron Dolot’s Execution by Hunger (1985), which details his personal narrative of the Holodomor famine. As part of her analysis, Westin applied the theoretical approach of embodied affect to better understand the embodiment of victims and perpetrators in Dolot’s text (Ahmed 2013). Westin suggested that Dolot blurs boundaries between victims and monsters in his relation of incidences of cannibalism which complicate Ukrainian narratives of victimhood.

Dr Mark Neuendorf, from the University of Adelaide furthered the discussion of emotion, the body and health with his paper ‘Performing Sympathy, from Sentimentalism to Romanticism’. By the end of the eighteenth century, people aligned with ideas of romanticism which emphasised ‘real’ and ‘genuine’ emotional performances to situations. In these circumstances innate beauty and aesthetic pleasure stimulated feelings of sympathy. Neuendorf highlighted the connection between the bodies as a site of emotional performance, while also a stimulus that created emotions, and traced changing emotional responses to the insane which resulted in a shift in the dominant emotional regime.

The succeeding paper was delivered by art historian, Associate Professor Claire Roberts from The University of Melbourne. Roberts described the provocative performance art of Chinese artist Xiao Lu, and how the body has come to be her chosen medium of artistic expression. Xiao Lu’s art showcases the value of the body in communicating and performing emotions. More broadly, Roberts demonstrated the potential for art as an emotional refuge from restrictive emotional regimes, such as China in the closing years of the twentieth century. Roberts also suggested that the performativity of Xiao Lu’s 1989 Dialogue instillation was largely interpreted as a form of political protest, ignoring how it reflected the deep personal trauma of Xiao Lu herself. This distinction reminds scholars how bodily performances of emotion can becomes sites of debate and contest.

The final paper of the day was presented by Associate Professor of Politics and Visiting Research Fellow at The University of Adelaide, Peter Mayer. Mayer’s paper focused on the potential of using the NEO Personality Inventory (NEO-PI) as a methodological tool to determine personality traits of people in the past. Mayer used the life of Indira Gandhi as a case study, where he demonstrated the benefit of a fine-grain and rigorous taxonomy, especially in the fact that it allows the ability for historians to compare individuals from different periods and places.

The symposium covered a wide chronological period, from 1180 to the current day. In a final roundtable discussion, participants considered the themes emerging from the research presented.  We concluded that the papers had variously shown that whilst bodies are individual, embodiment is social. It was also agreed that the plethora of perspectives demonstrated the ways people have used bodily trauma and suffering to articulate their place, status, or identity, strengthening the idea that identity is bound with the physical body. Furthermore, such a diverse and inter-disciplinary symposium demonstrated different media from letters and narratives, to works of art, to social media platforms reveal the way people understand and express emotion cannot be disengaged from embodied feelings. Finally, the symposium endorsed the advantages of considering the body, not just within the discipline of history, but also politics, literature, art, and public health.

[i] ‘body’, in Oxford Dictionary of English, edited by Angus Stevenson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

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