Northern Centre for the History of Medicine and Medical Humanities

Pybus: "'Stand Up Straight': Posture and the Meanings Attributed to the Upright Body"

Added 12 October 2011 | Duration 48 minutes 12 seconds

Prof Sander L. Gilman, Emory University

The uniqueness of human beings has in the past been defined in terms of their abilities with language, the opposable thumb and the use of tools, consciousness, emotions, and, last but not least, upright posture. Over the past decades, more and more of these qualities (correctly or not) have been shown to be shared with any number of animals from the primates to the anteater. Only upright posture has been maintained as the quality that defines the human, indeed, has come to be the defining attribute that draws the evolutionary line between the earliest human beings and their predecessors. The seminar will focus on a set of interlinked claims about posture in modern culture. Posture has often been used to separate ‘primitive’ from ‘advanced’ peoples and the ‘ill’ from the ‘healthy.’ Indeed an entire medical sub-specialty developed in which gymnastics defined and recuperated the body (from Swedish and German Sports to Krankengymnastik to modern Gym Culture). But all of these claims were also part of a Western attempt to use posture (and the means of altering it) as the litmus test for the healthy modern body of the perfect citizen. Focusing on the centrality of posture in two oddly linked moments of modern thought – modern Zionist thought and Nationalism in early 20th century China – in terms of bodily reform, I shall illustrate how all of the earlier Western claims about posture (and the body of the ‘sick Jew” as well as the ‘sick man of Asia’) bring earlier debates together to reform unhealthy posture.

Prof Sander L. Gilman is a distinguished professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences as well as Professor of Psychiatry at Emory University, who is at present resident at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Durham. A cultural and literary historian, he is the author or editor of over eighty books. His Obesity: The Biography appeared with Oxford University Press in 2010; his most recent edited volume, Wagner and Cinema (with Jeongwon Joe) was published in that same year. He is the author of the basic study of the visual stereotyping of the mentally ill, Seeing the Insane, published by John Wiley and Sons in 1982 (reprinted: 1996) as well as the standard study of Jewish Self-Hatred, the title of his Johns Hopkins University Press monograph of 1986. For twenty-five years he was a member of the humanities and medical faculties at Cornell University where he held the Goldwin Smith Professorship of Humane Studies. For six years he held the Henry R. Luce Distinguished Service Professorship of the Liberal Arts in Human Biology at the University of Chicago and for four years was a distinguished professor of the Liberal Arts and Medicine and creator of the Humanities Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago. During 2004-5 he served as the Weidenfeld Visiting Professor of European Comparative Literature at Oxford University; 2007 to the present as Professor at the Institute in the Humanities, Birkbeck College; 2010 to the present as a Visiting Research Professor at The University of Hong Kong. He has been a visiting professor at numerous universities in North America, South Africa, The United Kingdom, Germany, Israel, China, and New Zealand. He has been awarded a Doctor of Laws (honoris causa) at the University of Toronto in 1997, and elected an honorary professor of the Free University in Berlin (2000).

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