158: Carolyn de la Pena’s The Body Electric

In The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built the Modern American, Carolyn de la Pena examines the relationship between bodies and machines in American from the 1850s to the 1950s.  Using novels, cartoons, trade mags, health fraud investigation records, newspapers, manuals, and other primary sources, de la Pena recovers a wide range of technologies and devices designed to restore the body to its natural state.  In doing so she shows how industrialization led not just to a reorganization and mechanization of production and society, but to a technologically-mediated experience of the body as well.

The Body Electric is divided into three general sections: Dudley Sarget and Gustav Zander’s weight-lifting machines and training programs designed to “balance” the body through uniform muscle development and “unblock” energy trapped within; technologies like electric belts, vibration devices, and magnetic collars (mostly from 1880 to 1930) that supposedly injected energy into the body to increase its reserve force; and radium (radioactive) waters that were taken as tonics and in baths to flood the body with heat and energy, mostly from 1902 to 1940.  Throughout, de la Pena examines the relationship between these technologies and gender (increasing male strength; electrically stimulating male sexuality; curing neurasthenia), class (upper classes went to gyms; middle classes bought a wide range of technologies; working classes bought radium dispensers), and race (a Dr. Pancoast at UPenn treated African Americans by applying x-rays for up to 15 minutes at a time “allegedly” to turn their skin white.)   She also shows how these treatments were often supported with the language of science: the laws of Thermodynamics; offsetting entropy; electric transfer; energy.

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about this book is that much of this “better living through technology” discourse held on until the atomic bomb, and some of it, like using physical fitness to cure neurasthenia, lives on in only slightly modified language today.

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