Performing History: Reconstructing British Nineteenth-Century Physical Exercises

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by Lotta Vuorio

When exploring the history of the body and experiences, the question of how best to represent embodied, historical knowledge turns out to be crucial but sometimes quite difficult to manage with conventional ways of representing history. The task of translating embodied experiences of the past into textual form can appear as an incomplete way of forwarding the historical knowledge to the interested audience. Sometimes words are not enough but other, unconventional, and even irrational research methods and forms of representations might be valuable. In this paper, I examine the possibilities that re-enacting and videorecording nineteenth-century physical exercises can offer for the researcher as a method of recovering and representing historical embodied experiences. I argue that such recordings support better understanding of the material-discursive and varying experiences of physical exercises in nineteenth-century Britain. I also propose that reconstructing history through videography can all in all be a valuable method for representing embodied histories.

Author’s bio:
Lotta Vuorio is a PhD researcher at the University of Helsinki. Her research focuses on the moving body in nineteenth-century Britain, and the lived experience of physical exercises in various forms. She is interested in experimental ways of representing the past in the present, which is why performativity touches upon her research both in theory and in practice. She is also known for her Finnish history-themed podcast called Menneisyyden Jäljillä (On the track of the past) that popularises historical research and gives voice to fascinating topics that are highly significant in this day.

Registered attendees received access to the video presentation and shared questions and comments below.

3 replies on “Performing History: Reconstructing British Nineteenth-Century Physical Exercises”

Hi Lotta. Thank you for this fascinating presentation, which was richly illustrated by the same exercises you write on. I was very intrigued by your combination, or perhaps assimilation, of the “embodied” and “tacit” as modes of a pseudo-articulation (physical gesticulation qua meaningful articulation?) I was overall drawn to and convinced by your attempts of thinking through non-semantic (i.e. unconventional and irrational) ways in which ideas find expression. I wonder particularly about the ‘tacit’ as a category of expression-via-nonexpression, as when one says that there exists a ‘tacit understanding’ between, say, two interlocutors, or even among performances by musicians (as during improvisational playing in jazz or rock music). I wonder how much notions of ‘sympathy’ and ‘intuition’ would play into what you depict, as well as the wider role of imitation and mimesis in all of this. My mind went to the ‘intuitive’ as a mode of practical (and) embodied engagement with the world, which is generally characterized as tacit or pre-conceptual. Perhaps this is out of left field or not in the scope of your research, but I have been studying Heidegger and it seems to me that some of his work in Being and Time, which touches in large part on ideas of tacit understanding and human beings’ fundamentally pragmatic engagement with the world, might be relevant here—I wonder if your research has led you in this direction, either in Heidegger or a more prominently “bodily” phenomenologist, such as Merleau-Ponty? Thank you again for this interesting research!

Hi Lotta, thank you for such an engaging presentation! Besides your video recordings of the exercises, the added visual elements (keywords, illustrations etc.) also made it quite easy to follow your research steps and argument, which was very straightforward and compelling. I found your embodied approach to tacit history inspiring. The methodology also raised some illuminating points regarding how researchers interact with their sources and their audiences.

An immediate question that I had was if the physical condition of the exercising person played a role in the process of reenactment. I imagine that the bodily experiences might differ a lot between, for example, a person with actual spinal problems and one without. You mentioned that you hoped to reconstruct the exercises with more authentic clothing and setting in the future. According to what criteria do you choose which elements to reconstruct or not?

My second query is more general: it seems to me that there was a broader European interest in (medical) gymnastics in the 19th century. Is there any particular reason you decided to focus on Britain? Since gymnastics was often considered a patriotic form of physical activity and related to cultural imperialism (you also mentioned this in your paper), I am curious if the entry point of your research touches on this angle.

Lastly, thank you so much for the lovely comment for my research! I also noticed that in your bibliography, Mathias Roth specifically published about the strengthening and development of the female body. While the gender aspect is not prominent in your paper this time, I saw that you have already published another article on the exact subject. It is unfortunate that I can’t read Finnish. But I will make sure to check out the dissertation you linked for me! Thank you again for sharing this innovative research. It was a pleasure reading your paper!

Hi Lotta, thanks for such an original piece! As Sonia said, it really raises a number of important broader questions about historians’ interaction with their audiences—and, I would add, about the goals and limits of historical research more broadly.

Just a quick question that came to mind in watching your presentation, again on the issue of gender. I would love to hear any further reflections you might have on the choice of wearing an outfit closer to that prescribed for men, and how that might have affected your experience. You mention in the paper that in the future you plan on collaborating with museums to reconstruct the exercises with more authentic clothing—would you have done this already, had you had the means? Or did you consciously choose to try both approaches (and if so, with what goals in mind)?

Thanks again, and look forward to meeting you soon!

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