Beauty, Sex & Science: Whose Body is it Anyway c.1550-2015?

Module code: HS3773

A flourishing branch of cultural history that has become popular during the last two decades is the history of the body. Known as the ‘corporeal turn’ in cultural history, the focus in a history of the body entails much more than a narrow medical study. It not only explores how doctors and scientists have represented and examined the body, it also studies the representation of bodies in popular cultural. In particular it pays attention to the way individuals in the past experienced their bodies compared to today. Today, this inter-disciplinary approach is called a ‘new history of the body’ and it is the central focus of this special subject module. By critically examining a rich variety of primary research material the overall aim of this special subject module is to rediscover how and why bodies have been categorized as ‘normal’ / ‘abnormal’, and what this has meant for changing concepts of beauty, disability, gender, love, sexuality, race, and mental well-being. We will be encountering philosophers like Michel Foucault and feminist thinkers such as Judith Butler, as well as cultural historians intrigued by the way that art, culture, religion and science have remapped the Human Atlas. Critically engaging in-depth with this historical process of continuity and change involves studying body debates both chronologically and thematically, by drawing on approaches in art history, anthropology, ethnography, gender studies, as well as the cultural histories of beauty, sex and science. Thus (by way of example) the historian Thomas Laqueur has sketched how in the early modern period ordinary people thought human kind consisted of only one sex (women were seen as a less complete version of men), and yet this came about because the anatomical sciences were to socially reconstruct sexuality on biological lines. By the modern era this interpretation had real consequences for the disempowerment of women in childbirth. By embarking then on this historical sight-seeing tour, and engaging in-depth with a wealth of primary research material (dissection records, diaries, autobiographies, love letters about courtship & sex, birthing manuals, fashion archives, online disability blogs, newspapers, public enquiries, policy papers, court cases & so on), this module navigates the cultural map of whose body is it anyway in beauty, sex and science from 1550 to 2015.

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