Category Archives: body

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.


128: Tim Cresswell’s On the Move

In On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World, Tim Cresswell explores mobility – which he defines as “meaningful movement” – at a variety of scales and in a variety of places in the (mostly anglophone) West.  Pulling from case studies that range from Frederick Taylor’s time and motion studies to British ballroom dancing to the LA Bus Riders’ Union, Cresswell argues that mobility is “both center and margin – the lifeblood of modernity and the virus that threatens to hasten its downfall.”  While the “mobility turn” had been taking the humanities by storm since 1996, this book is the first to interrogate what mobility is rather than defining it against what it isn’t (place, boundedness, foundations, stability.)

For Cresswell, mobility is actually three mobilities that mutually constitute one another.

  • Empirical mobility is the actual movement of people, things, birds, etc.; it is the closest to actual movement and thus the most abstract (because it traces displacement, not necessarily the meaning of displacement.)  
  • Representations of mobility are the photos, literature, philosophy, etc., that capture mobility and try to make sense of it, usually in ways that are ideological.  They might link mobility to freedom, transgression, creativity, life and so on.  They reproduce mobility and interpret it according to a particular worldview.
  • Experienced mobilities are mobilities that are practiced, embodied, ways of being in the world, as well as how we experience and feel about mobility.
Mobility is both subjective and objective, and the perspective from which we experience/ study mobility has a lot to do with how we interpret it.  Because mobility is both subjective and objective, it is also both socially constructed and universal, in the sense that everything moves, and the interplay between this universal fact of life and a particular movement within a particular context gives that movement meaning.  Mobility is thus a “necessary social production,” and a way of inextricably integrating geography with the politics of social life.
Cresswell’s writing style is wonderfully clear and engaging, and his many case studies, as well as his brief history of the development of mobility into an individual right in the modern capitalist state, cover mobility at a variety of scales ranging from the individual to the workplace to nation, empire, and the placeless place of the Shiphol Airport.  The only thing missing, maybe, is a study of imperial movement from the perspective of the colonized, with some attention to the relationship between labor migration and uneven development.

119: Yi-Fu Tuan’s Space & Place

From my notes from Spring 2012: 
In Space and Place, Yi-Fu Tuan develops three themes: the relationship between space and the human body; the relationship between place and space; and the range of human experience or knowledge of space and place.  He argues that human experience of the world (in all its fullness) both shapes and is shaped by space and place.  Tuan develops this humanist argument against more abstract geographical conceptions of space; this book is generally considered to be the first “human geography” book.  For Tuan, experience is both feeling and thought.  Experience consists of all the myriad ways in which humans interact with their environment: via the body (the five senses, along with “sensorimotor,” moving through a space, and “skin”), via the imagination (including myths, fantasy, narration, memory), and conceptually or rationally (a big-picture, god’s-eye view).  Space is more abstract, something that you move through and dominate; think openness, spaciousness.  Places “stay put;” they acquire value when humans pause in their movements through space and stop to experience them, to create memories there, or to otherwise create links between themselves and a physical location.  While a single human experience cannot possibly encompass the complexity of the real world, full experience of space and place, is integral to the development of human consciousness and culture and to the reintegration of body and mind (discourse).

Stuff I liked 
He take a humanist perspective and integrates body and mind (separated through the Enlightenment, rationalization, industrialization, etc) through the experience of space.  He distinguishes, though not as rigorously as de Certeau, between representations of space and experience of them.  De Certeau’s big point, that static structures reify power and freeze space in time, gets some of the same treatment here, though Tuan doesn’t see the tension in quite the same way: “the built environment clarifies social roles and relations” – makes them legible, communicates a certain perspective on “reality.” (102)  Building requires awareness: knowing where and how to build, physically building, and using the space.  His integration of narrative and myth in space is cool: mythical space as both the fuzzy unknown/ the field on which moral values get acted out underscores the development of a culture and worldview.  De Certeau sees mythical space as an escape from the reality of class struggle – Tuan has that too, but in his anthropological, humanist view of the world he puts it on equal footing with pragmatic space.  Mythical space attempts to organize and make sense of the world; it “imputes personality to space, thus transforming space in effect into place.” (91)  It’s a way of humanizing the world/ helps us find/create a secure place in it.  Much like de Certeau’s walkers, mythic space links movement and performance with discourse via narration.  Spatial divisions and orientations are developed around the body; distances are tied to blurred social/spatial networks (social relations).  Experience includes conceptual thinking; he doesn’t have the same problem de Certeau does with taking a birds-eye view.  Time is implied in the experience of space; it humanizes and historicizes it. (118)  Places are visible, but visibility really means making a place real through dramatization.  (161)  
Three relationships between time and place
  • Time as motion or flow, place as pause
  • “While it takes time to form an attachment to a place, the quality and intensity of experience matters more than simple duration” 
  • Being rooted in a place is not the same thing as consciously attempting to evoke a sense of place/ the past.  Experience > representation as far as developing place and time.   Abstract space vs concrete place: abstract space is strange, place is familiar and dear. (199) 

He has a strong emphasis on affect throughout, and a strong argument that just because an experience does not readily translate into words doesn’t mean it’s not important; many of the characteristics that make us pause in or return to a place are not verbal, rational, scientific, or even visual: they are remembered, imagined, sensed, felt.  An important, humanizing, affect/experience-based corrective to purely rational ways of organizing and thinking about space (ahem, the Midwest.)

Stuff I didn’t like: 
His emphasis on the precultural, universal “man” with little attention to how social divisions might impact the way people use space; too much attention to the development of children (and a suspicious, uncomplicated reliance on Freud to equate place and mother); a reliance on commonplaces and sayings and examples of “primitive” cultures as a way to make strange elements of our own culture, which assumes a universal human experience; no tension or mention of power: everything just seems to melt together, as though space is indifferent as to whether “man” is “upright” and controlling it or “prone” and submissive.  Are we all just individuals, floating through space at will?  Also, I realize he’s writing simply to help us experience what he’s writing about, but I found it slow and a bit pedantic.  I would have preferred a more historical account of the development of space and place through experience, a sort of material grounding of his ideas.  Unless his point is that there is no material grounding, and all we have is perspective?
de Certeau: they have similar but differing concepts of space and place, and they have definite similarities in how they conceive of performance, the construction of architectural space, reification of human experience, and the relationship between constructed space and human experience.  They also both emphasize, although in different ways, that space/place acquire value for users through use, and that peripatetic experience constructs spatial narratives better than representations do.  He also connects a lot to anthropology; I would like to see his connection to Simmel, for instance, or Durkheim or Bourdieu.  He writes a lot like JB Jackson, with that sort of vague, humanist approach to landscape.