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Sunday, 28 April 2013

Enjoyable colloquium

This was not part of the 'get out more' project, as I'd been asked to give a keynote at the 'Civilising Bodies: Literature, Rhetoric and Image, 1700-present day' colloquium run under the auspices of the Centre for Medical History, University of Exeter. It was a rather full (24 short papers in 8 panels + 2 keynote talks) two days, run as one strand without parallel panels, which was an excellent decision, as so many of the papers had things to say to one another, a resonance which would have been lost in parallel sessions.

Everything ran most admirably to time, and there were ample scheduled coffee, lunch and tea breaks facilitating less formal exchanges, as well as an extremely convivial conference dinner.

The speakers were mostly postgraduates and it was very exciting to hear some of the very fresh work that is being done. I was particularly intrigued to observe that Norbert Elias and his theories on the civilising process appear to be making a comeback - though perhaps this was to be expected given the conference theme.

There was a considerable range of material presented, from eighteenth century masquerades to very recent media phenomena such as makeover shows, emerging from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds. Particularly resonant with my own interests were an examination of the 1894 Massage Scandals both in the context of professionalisation and the wider concerns of the period, and an analysis of reports of rapes by medical professionals in the mid-C19th when the profession was going through a turbulent era, with increasing regulation. I was also very interested by the paper on 'Western public toilets and private bodies since the C15th', though unfortunately the author of the paper was not present (it was read out by the session chair) and I therefore did not have a chance to ask how issues of gender inflected this story (in the light of Clara Greed's important work on this topic). But a great deal to think about emerged from all the session.

Mark Jackson's keynote on 'An Age of Stress: myth or reality' was a delicious taster for his new book The Age of Stress: Science and the Search for Stability, suggesting that present-day anxieties about the debilitating pace of modern life as a result of developments in technology reiterate similar concerns expressed in very similar terms going back well into the C19th (at least).

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