I'm currently attending the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Environmental History. For the most part, the audience has been great. There have been few "this is more of a comment than a question" and "let me tell you about my work" contributions from the floor. But this blog post is going to break protocol. I have more of a comment than a question.
off, some caveats. I attended a mere six out of dozens of panels.
There were three to four papers per panel. So I saw a handful of
papers out of many, many papers. It's possible that I missed a whole
bunch of papers that used gender. Crapping on people's work for not
doing what you want it to do is a cheap critique. First and
foremost, we have to evaluate the work for whether it's successful on
it's own terms. Finally, people come to ASEH for the people who are
here. When I was doing academic work, I didn't present my gender stuff
at ASEH because there were other venues with other people who could give
me that kind of feedback. When I presented at ASEH, I wanted feedback
on the environmental aspects of my work. I'm going to assume that a lot
of people presenting here have similar agendas.
history has a sweet spot. To a significant degree, it's about the
intersection of people and nature and also about people as nature. That
is, physical bodies, (sexed bodies, male bodies, female bodies,
intersexed bodies, trans bodies) are often at the center of our
intellectual assumptions. Yet, somehow, these bodies were curiously
de-sexed and de-gendered.
I saw an absolutely
fabulous paper on the contamination of the food supply of the American
army during the Spanish American War. The author did a fabulous job
talking about discourses of purity and contamination and fears over
industrial meat production. At the same time, there is a significant
literature on manliness and masculinity to draw on. It wouldn't take much to add a paragraph or two on how fears over masculinity in the late 19th century (think Bederman's Manliness and Civilization) shaped discourse over the fears of contamination of actual male bodies via tainted meat. Cultural historians often talk about bodies* but they are really talking
about metaphoric bodies- bodies politic or national bodies, or
representations of bodies. Environmental historians talk about actual
bodies and they should talk about those bodies but if they want to reach a wider audience they need to talk about those bodies as possessed of gender and sex.
historians also spend a lot of time talking about mapping power, but
they never make the damn maps. Environmental historians, when they talk
about mapping power they give you the map.
UPDATE: Feel free to mention environmental history work that does a good job with gender in the comments and after sleeping a night I remember that Virginia Scharff said this better and more coherently 20 years ago. The more things change...