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Bodies of Evidence: Reflections on the Somatic Experience of Doing History – Sasha Rasmussen

Even as the discipline of history has come to terms with the subjectivities and positionality of its practitioners, the body of the historian remains fraught territory. Carolyn Steedman offers a rare glimpse of the embodied practice of history in her description of archive fever, the night sweats and terrible headaches, ‘the pain pressing down like a cap that fits to your skull and the back of your eyes, the extreme sensitivity to light and distortion of sound’ which came in the wake of her research.[1] But what happens when bodily knowledge is also integral to our historical enquiry? If we are interested in the somatic experience of the past, how can we make space for our own embodiment in our historical practice?

Bodies loom large in sensory history – both those of the researchers and of their historical subjects – and I admit that, as I took my first steps into this field in the early stages of my doctorate, I found these questions worrying. I consider myself a dyed-in-the-wool historian, both by training and by inclination; despite an interdisciplinary background, I also found a great deal of comfort in disciplinarity – in the standards and methods of the historian’s trade, in the security and stability of text. When I first approached the field of sensory history, I was drawn to the arguments advanced by scholars whose work focused on printed sources and on the ways in which specific sensations became meaningful within a given cultural framework. To borrow the terminology coined by Mark M. Smith, I was more interested in how sensations were ‘consumed’ in the past – how they were understood and interpreted – than how they were ‘produced’, or the physiological experience of the sensation itself.[2]

At a workshop early in the second year of my doctorate, I presented a paper on Russian women and the iubka-sharovary, a style of loose, drapey trousers which became fashionable around 1910. A senior professor asked me if I had tried wearing this kind of garment; I protested that my experience would be so far removed from that of my historical subjects as to be completely useless – not only did I not wear a corset, but I had grown up with skinny jeans as a wardrobe staple. To my mind, there was no comparison, but the professor graciously suggested there might still be something to the idea. As historians, we often crave some form of connection to or identification with the people we study. In some ways, the shared experience of embodiment is the most we have in common with the people we study, a feeling articulated by Paul Cohen: ‘[a]ll of us, after all, have expertise in this area. We are all experiencers ourselves, not of the past but of a past.’[3] Yet in the early stages of my research, this was something I studiously avoided.

There are aspects of sensory history which speak to us on a very visceral level – we, too, are familiar with the shock of cold water, the smell of a rose, or how it feels to stand in a dark street and gaze into an illuminated shop window. These moments act as sensory threads which tie the somatic experience of the past to our own daily lives – but as much as we feel we recognise these sensations, we must resist straying into anachronism. One of the key tenets of sensory history is that sensory perception is ‘socially and culturally constructed, specific to time and place, and therefore has a history.’[4] However, if we accept that true historical accuracy can be approached but never achieved, these kinds of ‘performative methods’ still have much to teach us.[5] Championed by scholars in the fields of the history of science, art history, and heritage studies, methods which seek to reconstruct or reproduce aspects of past experience draw our attention to the bodily processes by which people acquired knowledge about the world.[6]

My thesis is largely concerned with women’s interactions with the city in the early twentieth century – how they moved through physical space, engaged with the material environment, and the sensory encounters they had across the urban landscape. As such, the city itself is also an archive of sorts. During my research, I spent several months abroad in France and Russia, working in local archives. But when the archives closed for the day, I had time to wander the city streets, and I realised (perhaps belatedly) the parallels between my own experience and that of the women whose documents I had spent the day reading.

This feeling was especially strong while working in the archives of the St Petersburg State Conservatory, where I was working with the personal files of female students, mostly unmarried and in their mid-twenties, many of whom had moved from the provinces to the imperial centre to pursue a musical education. After the Revolution, the Petersburg streets changed their names, but they have not moved – they still trace largely the same paths through the city. The hulking mass of the Mariinsky Theatre still stands on Theatre Square opposite the Conservatoire, and from above comes the distant sound of a violinist practising scales through an open window. There are things which I noticed as I moved through the city – the rhythm of my feet on the flagstones, the cold whip of the wind off the Neva, the gentle rumble of electric trams – which informed my understanding of how it might have been for women a century earlier.

Four years ago, this admission would have made me profoundly nervous. Today, I am trying to find ways to give space to alternative ways of knowing. In the words of historian of science Otto Sibum, historical practices which focus on the body are ‘not an attempt to find out “how it really was”,’ but rather ‘a complementary method to the existing modes of historical exploration.’[7] Bringing an awareness of embodiment and somatic experience to our work as historians opens up crucial new avenues and possibilities, for instance, in writing histories of disability and queerness. While it is still a balancing act, integrating bodily knowledge into a gendered history of the senses feels like an important and potentially fruitful step in the right direction.


Sasha Rasmussen is currently a History Innovation Fund Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Auckland | Waipapa Taumata Rau in Aotearoa New Zealand. She completed her doctorate at the University of Oxford in 2021, with a thesis entitled Feminine Feelings: Women and Sensation in Paris and St Petersburg, 1900–1913. Her research explores the particularities of women’s experiences in the early twentieth century, with wider interests in urban history, sexuality and the body, music, and dance.

Image of Femina from the Bibliotheque Nationale de France;2#

Image of St Petersburg Conservatoire from Wikicommons

[1] Carolyn Steedman, ‘Something She Called a Fever: Michelet, Derrida, and Dust’, American Historical Review vol. 106, no. 4, pp. 1159-1180, at p. 1165

[2] Mark M. Smith, ‘Producing Sense, Consuming Sense, Making Sense: Perils and Prospects for Sensory History’, Journal of Social History vol. 40, no. 4 (2007), pp. 841-858.

[3] Paul Cohen, History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Events, Experience, and Myth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), p. 60

[4] William Tullett, ‘State of the Field: Sensory History’, History vol. 106, no. 373 (2021), pp. 804-820, at p. 804.

[5] Sven Dupré, Anna Harris, Julia Kursell, Patricia Lulof, and Maartje Stols-Witlox (eds.), Reconstruction, Replication and Re-Enactment in the Humanities and Social Sciences (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020), p. 9.

[6] See Pamela H. Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Hjalmar Fors, Lawrence M. Principe, and Otto Sibum, ‘From the Library to the Laboratory and Back Again: Experiment as a Tool for Historians of Science’, Ambrix vol. 63, no. 2 (2016), pp. 85-97

[7] Otto Sibum, ‘Science and the Knowing Body: Making Sense of Embodied Knowledge in Scientific Experiment’, in Dupré et al., Reconstruction, Replication and Re-Enactment…, pp. 275-293, at p. 282.