Friday, March 20, 2015

Reflections on ASEH: 2015. This is more of a comment than a question.

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.    

First 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.


Environmental 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.

*Cultural 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... 

1 comment:

  1. "Bully!" shouted Teddy as he headed toward the beef;
    But soon he and his doughty band had suffered inner grief;
    For bully beef was knackered horse whose ho'd been given heave;
    And soon was seen in their latrine ranchers retching for relief.